This morning, my daughter’s hand got stuck in a hotel lift door. Thankfully, with a little handiwork and the help of a crowbar, she was freed relatively unscathed.
The hotel staff immediately fetched ice. Despite knowing that ice may do injuries more harm than good, I held the ice against her swollen hand because it does still serve a purpose in pain relief.
Forget ice: Short-term inflammation is there to help.Credit:Getty Images
Inflammation is a hot topic and is implicated in everything from depression to chronic disease, sports injury and obesity. We know inflammation is bad and we need to get rid of it, so we go on anti-inflammatory diets, take medication and use ice to relieve it But, inflammation, it turns out, is nothing to fear and, often, helps us.
A recent podcast between American big wave surfer and elite athlete trainer, Laird Hamilton and Joe Rogan, got me thinking about inflammation.
Hamilton, who has a fairly avant-garde approach to health and fitness, was discussing his recent hip replacement. He was planning to use ice in his recovery, as per the advice of the last 40-odd years, until he found out that icing suppresses the healing hormone igf-1 (insulin growth factor 1, which is closely related to human growth hormone).
“Pain kicks that hormone off – that's how the body knows – so when you suppress pain you stop that healing, so you go and ice, you suppress that hormonal release of igf-1,” Hamilton said. He attributed his fast recovery from the operation to using heat instead of ice, getting mobile quickly (which experts now recommend) and avoiding pain medication.
It's a natural inflammatory process and it stops you running down the road and doing yourself more damage.
“The more you suppress the pain no matter which way you do it whether it’s ice, pain pills, whatever it is, I believe the longer you extend the healing,” he said.
Dr Tom Buckley is an academic leader within the Faculty of Health and Medicine, at the University of Sydney. He explains that when we roll our ankle, for example, the first thing we feel is a shock of pain, which stimulates the inflammatory response.
“It causes swelling at the site and that swelling brings a lot of goodies onto the site – red blood cells, antibodies, white cells etcetera and the swelling creates a pressure on the area, because any time you bleed you swell, and it helps to stop the bleeding. It’s a natural inflammatory process and it stops you running down the road and doing yourself more damage. That is the first stage of repair,” Buckley says.
“When you start inhibiting that process … the concept that we need to stop the swelling … is really about treating uncomfortable symptoms.”
Buckley, who also competes in ironmans, cycling and motocross, says he uses ice and cold water therapy strategically to stimulate his endocrine system and recovery but he no longer uses it to treat injuries.
“The first thing I do when I go home is I put a hot water bottle on it,” he says. “It will swell up, but the blood flow down there is more beneficial than restricting it … It might take a little bit longer for the symptoms to subside but, I’ll tell you what, those injuries don’t come back.”
Of course, there is a place for pain management, in the form of ice or medication.
“There is no quality of life if you’re in constant pain,” Buckley says. “If somebody is immobile because the pain is so bad then making them more mobile might have more benefits than sitting there and waiting for the pain to go down. “But the concept of pain killers as a first stop is where the mind shift needs to be; they probably need to be the last stop.”
Even walking around barefoot on grass has been shown to decrease inflammatory markers (as has) reducing our intake of processed foods.
We also need a mind shift when it comes to inflammation, which is the body’s way of trying to heal itself. It only becomes bad when it becomes chronic.
“It is damaging to have inflammation unresolved and ongoing because a lot of the anti-inflammatory and anti-immune mechanisms we use are like poisons in the body and they are there for a reason; to kill off dead cells or bacteria, fungi or parasites but when the body is continually producing them it actually starts to do damage to the lining of the blood vessels,” he says.
“Very acidic diets – a lot of processed foods, ongoing emotional stress, a lack of recovery they are the things that create low-grade inflammation long-term.”
So a little inflammation, when we hurt ourselves should be welcomed, not feared, but we do want to prevent it from sticking around. We can do this by working towards what Buckley calls an “anti-inflammatory way of living” which includes lowering our stress levels, getting regular fresh air, spending time in nature, “even walking around barefoot on grass has been shown to decrease inflammatory markers” and reducing our intake of processed foods and foods with additives that the body doesn’t recognise.
“When inflammation is acute, it’s acute with purpose and it’s actually a protective mechanism,” Buckley explains. “When inflammation becomes chronic, it’s actually a destructive mechanism.”
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