Two of the most commonly used methods for treating sports injuries are being questioned more today than ever — the R.I.C.E. method of resting the injury, icing it, applying compression and elevating it; and the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has weighed in on the dangers of NSAIDs usage1FDA.gov.

Despite the dangers, many people are unaware and continue to use them to mask their symptoms instead of treating the injury properly. That is why a growing number of people are turning to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for more effective and safer healing practices.

Sport injuries are highly common, especially ankle sprains, groin pulls, hamstring strains, shin splints and knee injuries. It has long been advised to ice an injury and take an NSAID to reduce the swelling. While these might be short-term solutions to ease the pain, they could actually be detrimental to the healing process.

When injuries require surgery, it is even more crucial to assist the healing process – without jumping to painkillers or ice. ACL Tears, shoulder dislocations, meniscal tears, kneecap dislocation and severe fractures top the list of sports injuries that require surgery, yet many patients continue to suffer problems afterward because of improper post-operative care.2Orthopaedic Institute for Children. Surgery for Common Sports Injuries, September 2017.

NSAID and R.I.C.E. Usage Across the United States

In 2001, over 70 million prescriptions were for NSAIDs in the U.S. alone. That doesn’t include the number of NSAIDs sold without a prescription. Over 30 billion over-the-counter doses are sold annually throughout the country3Green, GA., Understanding NSAIDs: from aspirin to COX-2, 2001. It wasn’t until recently that people started realizing the long- and short-term dangers of NSAID use, which include kidney damage, a suppressed immune system, gastrointestinal bleeding, stroke and high blood pressure to name a few. It doesn’t help that drug companies marketing NSAIDs have influenced doctors to prescribe them. In fact, even health care professionals themselves admit that this influence has caused problems, as 61% believe NSAIDs are overprescribed.

The R.I.C.E. method may not be as dangerous as taking an NSAID, but its physiological effects are actually counterproductive. Recent studies show that complete rest and icing may actually delay the healing process. In one particular study, athletes were told to exercise at an intensity that made them develop muscle damage. Although icing (as recommended by the R.I.C.E. method) delayed swelling, it did nothing to repair the damaged muscles4Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27(5):1354–1361, May 2013.

Compression doesn’t help either, according to a summary of 22 scientific articles5The American Journal of Sports Medicine, January, 2004;32(1):251-261..

Why NSAIDs and R.I.C.E Are Ineffective

When tissue is damaged due to trauma, or when muscles become sore after exercising at a high intensity, the body’s immunity mechanisms heal those areas. It is the same process used to kill germs. When that happens, inflammation occurs. Counter to popular belief, inflammation is actually a good thing, as it starts the healing process as the inflammatory cells release the Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) hormone into the damaged tissues6 Journal of American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, Vol 7, No 5, 1999.. By preventing inflammation with NAISDs or by icing the area, you’re delaying the healing process since the cells will be unable to release the hormone.

In order to prove this, one study looked at two groups of mice7Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, November 2010. One group was genetically altered in a way that prevented their bodies from performing the typical inflammatory response when injured. They were then injected with barium chloride to damage their muscles. The muscles of the mice in that group did not heal and had little to none of the IGF-1 hormone in them. In comparison, the muscles of the mice in the untouched group healed quickly and had high amounts of the IGF-1 hormone.

How Traditional Chinese Medicine Heals Sports Injuries

Unlike NSAIDs and the R.I.C.E. method, traditional Chinese medicine involves finding and treating the root of distress instead of just treating the symptoms. After all, without getting to the root of the problem, the symptoms will recur, and the cycle of NSAID use continues.

The use of TCM tools like herbal medicine and acupuncture cause an analgesic effect that reduces pain and stimulates blood flow to promote healing. TCM can also boost bone cell production, which reduces the amount of time it takes to heal an injury.

TCM is successfully used for post-operative healing as well. One specific case study shared by Christina Ducharme, LAc involved a 61-year-old male who shattered his ankle bone. By using acupuncture, she was able to open and stimulate flow along the meridians and other local points to treat the pain and swelling. The patient immediately felt the effects in the immediate area as well as along the bladder channel, indicating an analgesic effect.

It isn’t just acupuncture that can be used to treat sports injuries. A traditional Chinese trauma liniment can do wonders for sports injuries — specifically one known as “die da jiu liniment.” According to Andrew Pacholyk, LAc, it is the top remedy for sprains, fractures, bruises and contusions.

More Athletes Are Looking to Traditional Chinese Medicine

Many famous athletes use TCM when they have an injury or ailment that needs to be addressed. The list is too extensive to name, but includes Kobe Bryant, Jason Hammel and Olympic medalist DeeDee Trotter. Aaron Rodgers has even publicly thanked his acupuncturist during news conferences.

It isn’t just athletes who rely on TCM. The U.S. Army even uses acupuncture to treat injured soldiers who deal with chronic pain.

As the unwanted side effects of NSAIDs start to become as widely known as those of opioids, more people are turning to TCM as a safer, more effective alternative for treating not only sports injuries, but also ailments as simple as the common headache. Becoming more educated about treatment options and being more comfortable with TCM can help people rely less on NSAIDs and promote healing from the inside out.