Why & How Does Cold Compression Therapy Help?
It’s a pretty good question. Anecdotally people find cold very soothing, but when it comes to feeling better it’s always smart to know what’s you’re dealing with. There is a genuine scientific reason for why moderate levels of cold reduce pain and inflammation, one which isn’t at all hard to understand.
One thing you need to know is what inflammation actually is. It isn’t an injury, at least not quite. Inflammation is part of your body’s natural response to injury or infection, the immune system charging in to clean up the mess and bring healing proteins to injured tissues. Inflammatory cells release chemical mediators that signal your body to send healing cells and proteins, and increase blood flow to speed it all up. The redness we see when inflamed is a visible example of this effect. Without this inflammatory response we wouldn’t heal from scraped knees or torn ligaments.
All that said, inflammation can be a pain in the neck. Like a friendly passerby who adds a quarter to your empty meter but then trips and spills their coffee on your windshield, inflammation can ruin your day as it tries to do good. The swelling it causes can be painful, especially when the damage is something your body can’t fix quickly. While usually only lasting a few days, sometimes – especially when you re-injure yourself while still healing – inflammation can get out of hand, lasting for weeks, months, or even years. Lasting inflammation – also called chronic inflammation – not only is miserable to live with but can cause health problems unrelated to whatever original issue it emerged in response to. Diseases like arthritis or plantar fasciitis are examples of the immune system getting out of hand and causing more harm than good. When inflammation gets out of control it prolongs and inhibits healing; it’s a delicate balancing act.
So where exactly does cold therapy come into all of this?
Many of us are familiar with using anti-inflammatory medications when we feel inflamed – Advil or other NSAIDs slow down inflammatory cells and make our joints feel better. But medications can be tough on your kidneys and stomach. Cold does a very similar thing, slowing blood flow and inhibiting the influx of inflammatory cells, which helps to reduce painful swelling, especially around joints and tendons. Cold also inhibits the pain signals to your brain that travel along small-fiber nerves, directly blocking pain. Just like cold inhibits bacteria in your refrigerator, cold slows down the biological activity of inflammatory cells, often just enough to put the brakes excessive inflammation.
Your body will keep working on fixing whatever is wrong with it, but much of the pain and soreness of excess inflammation will be controlled. In some cases, like plantar fasciitis, where re-injury and excess inflammation make healing nearly impossible, cold is a great way to stop the circle and allow things to finally start healing.
But when it comes to recovery, too much of anything can hurt. Freezing temperatures can cause the water in and around your cells to crystalize, slicing them open and setting off an injury response that your body will attempt to treat via – you guessed it – more inflammation. The damage caused by extreme cold is the reason we can’t actually freeze Walt Disney’s head and wake him up a few decades later. Freezing is the cold therapy equivalent of replacing a heating pad with a lit torch or a Band-Aid with a gallon of super glue.
The key to successful cold therapy is above freezing temperatures, moderate usage time, and allowing your body the time it needs to heal while you get to feeling better. If you aren’t recovering from an injury, cold will help with the pain and swelling but it isn’t the solution to getting back to where you were before. Consult with your doctor for the best recovery plan.