Do NOT Ice a Sprained Ankle: Here is Why

Ice is the problem

If you have a sprained ankle, you can bet someone has already told you to use ice. People you don’t even know will come up to you, say sorry and shake their head at your misfortune. Then, they’ll try and be helpful and tell you to start icing it right away. Of course, if you ask them for how long, they’ll probably shrug and walk off.

So, you’ll go home and ice your ankle. It will help with the pain a little bit, but you’ll notice the ankle heals very, very slowly. And the pain, weakness and instability is still there for months afterward. And even after a few months, when you play sports, you find that there may still be some residual and nagging pain that doesn’t go away.

So, maybe you’ll wear a brace or a wrap to help stabilize the ankle, but it will slow you down. You may not realize it, but your knees will now be at risk, because your ankles are less mobile. Also, your hips and low back will be somewhat exposed to injury because your gait will be different. And the worst part… your ankle will be at a very high risk of re-injury. And that will never change, because your ankle will always be weak and unstable.

Where did ice for an ankle come from?

So, what happened? Why didn’t ice work? And why is everyone telling everybody else to ice in the first place?

Okay, ice was first used in the sixties as a cheap way to help athletes alleviate pain on the sidelines. And, it worked in that regard. It does help with short term pain relief. But then, we made a leap of logic that if ice was good at short term pain relief, it must be good at healing. But, over time, we have learned that ice doesn’t just hinder the body’s healing process, it can actually stop it altogether.

Problem #1

Let’s take swelling and inflammation first. After a sprained ankle, you will be very swollen. Most people find their ankle swells up to the size of a softball or more. It’s painful, immobile and bruised. Human nature is to want to get rid of that as soon as possible.

But, here’s what’s very interesting… the body actually knows what it’s doing. The swelling triggers the immune system to send in immune cells called macrophages. In the first forty eight hours, those little guys have one job- to gobble up all the waste and debris in the injured area.

Well, they found that ice actually STOPS the flow of macrophages. So, by icing your ankle, you are effectively stopping the healing the process. This is just the first of many things ice does to hurt your body’s attempts at healing.

Problem #2

Next, the body wants to drain the injured area of all the waste. This is called lymphatic drainage. Obviously, you want to encourage the body’s attempts to drain the ankle of all the waste and debris caused by the sprain. Well, once again, ice stops the flow of lymphatic drainage. Not only that, it has actually been shown to reverse the flow of waste back into the ankle joint!

So, ice stops the flow of healthy immune cells into the ankle and stops the flow of waste out of the ankle. I am sure you can appreciate how much this hurts the healing process. Again, you are getting some short term pain relief, but at what cost?

Problem #3

Lastly, it has been shown that lymphatic drainage requires muscle activation. In other words, to properly drain tha ankle of waste, you have to move the ankle joint. It should be down very slowly and gently. You should never cause yourself any pain, but you do need to move it.

Well, the reason ice gives you some pain relief is due to the fact that it hinders and even stops the communication between nerves and muscle. And, if the nerves and muscles cannot communicate, you cannot effectively move your ankle. And if you cannot move your ankle, the waste cannot drain.

There are more stages of the healing process than just getting out the waste and debris. You have to repair the ankle joint and then get it back to full strength. You also have to improve stability and range of motion. But, I’m sure you can appreciate the fact that ice isn’t going to do any of that.

So, the only thing it is mean to do (reduce swelling) actually has the cumulative effect of stopping the body’s natural healing process. So, your ankle will go through a very painful and slow rehabilitation and at the end, will still be very weak and unstable.

So, what can you do for a sprained ankle instead of ice?

I’ll keep this part short and sweet… You need to encourage healthy blood flow. And you need to help your body manually remove the waste and break up scar tissue that is sure to develop. And you need to actively and safely move the ankle to improve range of motion as well as increase ankle strength and stability.

Not only will all these steps improve the quality of the healing process, it will dramatically SPEED IT UP. So, you will heal much faster and better than if you just lay arond and ice your sprained ankle.

How do you do this?

You can either follow a good at home sprained ankle rehab program like the one I developed (The H.E.M. Ankle Rehab System) or go see a good physical therapist. Either way, just make sure you take care of your sprained ankle the right way to avoid months and even years of pain, decreased sports performance and frustration.