The Ice and Mice Study: A Breakthrough Study Rethinking Muscle Recovery for the Over-50s

The Ice and Mice Study: A Breakthrough Study Rethinking Muscle Recovery for the Over-50s

Dr. Chris Daily


Physical Therapist and Golf Performance Specialist

After a tough workout or sports injury, many of us reach for an ice pack to soothe our aching muscles.

But, recent studies show that this popular method may not be as helpful as once believed, especially for older adults.

Ice packs are often used by athletes and gym-goers to reduce pain and swelling, and they're generally thought to help muscles heal faster. 

However, recent research is starting to question how effective icing really is. 

For instance, a study from 2011 found that icing an injured muscle didn't reduce pain any better than simply resting. In 2012, a review showed that athletes who iced muscles after intense workouts regained their strength and power much more slowly. Also, a 2015 study suggested that using ice packs too often after exercise could actually weaken muscles and reduce their size and endurance.

The Breakthrough Study

The study from Kobe University in Japan, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, put 40 young and fit male mice through a tough leg workout. Why? To see how icing affects muscle recovery at a really small, molecular level. 

What they found was a surprise: icing might actually slow down muscle repair!

Just like us, mouse muscles are made of fibers that can get worn out or hurt during intense workouts. Usually, muscles can fix themselves and get even stronger during rest, ready to take on the next physical challenge. But, this study has us rethinking how we treat our muscles post-workout

The Effects of Ice on Muscle Healing

After the mice worked out they then applied miniature ice packs to half of them, leaving the other half without ice. Over the next two weeks, they regularly examined the muscles of both groups.

The research focused on inflammation, the body's first step in responding to an injury. At the beginning, certain cells that cause inflammation go to the injured spot to start cleaning up the damage. Then, other cells that help reduce inflammation arrive to aid in healing and rebuilding the tissue. People often use ice to help lower the pain and swelling that happens during this inflammation process.

In a fascinating twist the study showed that the mice muscles that didn't get iced healed surprisingly fast. Researchers saw these special cells, which fight inflammation, zoom into the muscles and clear out the damage in just a few days. Then, other cells that help with healing and growing muscles kicked in. In two weeks, these muscles looked as good as new, proving that muscles have a pretty impressive ability to fix themselves without any ice.

In contrast, the muscles that did get iced weren't in such a hurry to heal. It took them a whole week to get to the healing stage that non-iced muscles reached in three days. Even after two weeks, these iced muscles weren't fully back to normal.

The head of this study, Dr. Takamitsu Arakawa from Kobe University, stated that icing muscles actually slows down recovery. He also pointed out that their study focused on serious muscle injuries, not just the usual aches and tiredness. And remember, they studied this in mice, not people!

Of course this research was on mice, but it's part of a larger question. It suggests that icing might not be the best solution for muscle recovery, particularly for the over 50’s who as a rule take longer to heal. 

This study reminds us to look for new and better ways to help our muscles bounce back and relieve pain. 

Or It just might just be a sign to chill out (figuratively speaking) and skip the ice packs, letting our muscles do their natural healing thing!