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Fire and Ice

August 15th, 2010

There is an interesting theory in Chinese medicine that our common practice of using ice to reduce inflammation may not be helpful for injury in the long run. When an injury occurs, the body responds with inflammation – swelling, redness, heat, and pain. These are all natural reactions which start the healing process, sending healing biochemicals to the location where they are needed. Using ice to counteract the natural heat which the body produces will slow the circulation by constricting blood vessels and capillaries, thereby limiting the healing process.

Icing may result in less pain and more function for the short term, but can create a lower level of inflammation for the long term, because the area never got the chance to heal properly in the first place. This results in a weak area which may develop symptoms later on in life. For most of the patients I see with arthritis, the painful joint which is often a joint which has been injured in the past, even many years before. Even though it may seem that arthritis develops very slowly over time without a specific cause, it may be that the old injury makes the joint weak, and that the ice impedes the healing.

In Chinese medicine theory, the cold from the ice can be “trapped” in the joint. Those with more robust body types may have the strength to counteract this cold, but as we get older, the balance shifts and we are not strong enough, resulting in discomfort, dysfunction, and even visible change. It is interesting to note that for many people the arthritis pains get worse with cold and damp weather, which is exactly the type of environment which began the problem. (Think about the qualities of ice – cold, and damp.)

In my practice, I use a lot of heat in conjunction with the needles to help the healing response. One traditional method is moxibustion, or the burning of a specific herb, near the needles so that the heat penetrates into the acupuncture point. Special infrared heating lamps are also commonly used by practitioners to cover a larger area. Heating specific areas of the body can increase blood flow and promote healing.

Think twice about ice: If it’s an acute injury, consider alternatives like arnica and other herbs. If it’s a chronic problem, consider a heating pad or a hot bath/shower. And of course, for either acute or chronic – to decrease pain and speed up healing – consider acupuncture!