by Caitlin Reid
Recovering quickly from a sports injury depends on a number of factors, including injury type, but also on the way you treat your injury during your recovery period, particularly the acute phase. Compression, icing and exercise therapy are the most effective strategies to help promote healing after some of the most common sports injuries. In this article, we’ll explore these methods in regard to leg injuries, so you can get back on your feet and doing what you love as soon as (safely!) possible.
Does the RICE Method Work?
The RICE method has long been used in the acute phase of injury recovery. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. While the theory behind RICE seems sound, new evidence and clinical guidelines have shown it’s the combination of individual elements — mostly the compression and ice — that make the difference to recovery rather than the full RICE method.
The consensus statement on the best way to treat ankle sprains (known as the clinical guideline) says: “There is no evidence that RICE alone, or cryotherapy, or compression therapy alone has any positive influence on pain, swelling or patient function. Therefore, there is no role for RICE alone in the treatment of acute lateral ankle sprain (LAS).”
So what does work? While these clinical guidelines relate to ankle sprains only, the evidence behind it can be extrapolated in respect to multiple injuries. The theory is that icing and compression are effective when combined with exercise. Here’s why.
Compression Therapy Is an Important Aspect of Lower-Limb Injury Recovery
While the full RICE method may not be the most effective treatment of your injury, compression is still an important part of injury recovery. The idea behind compression is it boosts lymphatic drainage, flushing out the built-up fluid in your injury site.
One systematic review, including 12 studies of 1,701 patients with ankle sprains, deduced compression may be an effective tool in the management of ankle injuries. This was thanks to its ability to reduce swelling and improve quality of life. Another echoed this finding, with the authors concluding compression “has a beneficial effect on edema reduction and probably a positive effect on pain and ankle joint mobility,” for the perioperative course (the time leading up to and directly after surgery) of ankle fractures.
Choosing the Right Compression Garment
That said, knowing what type of compression garment — and when to wear it — is key to reaping the benefits outlined above during the acute phase of your injury, which occurs directly after sustaining the injury when inflammation and soreness are at their highest levels.
Finding the best compression stockings and socks is much easier now thanks to modern brands incorporating evidence-based design with fun, funky prints. With fabrics from moisture-wicking merino wool to baby-soft cotton, great compression sock and stocking brands have made compression fashionable. Thanks to stylish patterns and designs, you’re more likely to wear these compression socks and stockings throughout the acute phase, thereby maximizing the healing effects. If you are unsure about what level of compression you need be sure to consult your physician.
So we know compression helps in recovery, but we also know it doesn’t work in isolation. Only using compression bandages or socks is not going tooptimize your recovery. Combining compression with icing and exercise is regarded as the gold standard in regard to ankle injuries.
Icing: An Important Part of the RICE Method
The short-term effects of icing (cryotherapy) after sustaining an injury are impressive. Not only does ice help with pain management, but it also helps with inflammation in the acute phase.
One study examined intermittent ice therapy (10 minutes on, followed by 10 minutes off, followed by a further 10 minutes on) against static ice therapy for 20 minutes within the hour. The intermittent ice therapy group saw significantly less ankle pain on activity from baseline to week one. However, after week one, there were no differences in pain, function or swelling between the two groups. This indicates intermittent ice therapy is exceptionally useful during the acute phase.
The clinical guidelines on ankle sprain management agree. The guidelines say ice combined with exercise has a greater effect on reducing swelling compared to heat and exercise. Plus, ice and exercise creates significant functional improvements in the short term. This means those with an ankle sprain can increase weight bearing faster, making daily life and returning to daily functions easier.
The Bottom Line
Compression and icing will significantly help reduce pain after a sprain or other sports injury, but it if you are unsure how best to get back on your feet, see a physical therapist. They will help you introduce exercise therapy into your injury recovery, and will offer informative guidelines of which exercises are best during each individual phase of recovery.
After an injury, there are a number of things you can do to help promote healing in the acute phase. By combining high-quality compression socks with ice therapy and exercise, you’re more likely to return to activity, reduce swelling and get back to work faster and more comfortably.
Caitlin Reid is a freelance journalist, copywriter and PR coordinator with over 10 years of experience
with clients around the world. She is also a physiotherapist with a special interest in holistic and
environmental well-being, blending the realms of evidence-based medicine with inspiring holistic health.