The use of cold therapy is widely used amongst athletes as an immediate treatment for acute soft tissue injuries. However, prolongued use actually delays the start of healing, and lengthens the recovery process by reducing blood flow leading possible tissue death or nerve damage.
It is known that cold therapy reduces inflammation, oedema, bruising, pain, muscle spasm, tissue metabolism and enzymatic activity. In the acute phase of injury, 20-minute bouts of cold therapy for tendon, muscle and ligament damage over a period of three days is often advised. You can generically expect tendons to heal in 4-6 weeks, muscles in 2-4 weeks and ligaments in 10-12 weeks. However, it is important not to use ice for a prolongued period of time, as this can increase healing time.
Inflammation is a natural process to encourage recovery, and anything that limits this process is likely to slow healing. The current advice is to apply cold packs when there is significant swelling and pain, as oedema has shown to impede healing time. When an injury is relatively minor, with minimal swelling and pain, then cold therapy may actually act as a barrier to recovery. Every injury is different, so it is important to undergo a full assessment to determine the best course of action.