San Huang San vs. Ice: Why Ice is Not So Nice for Sports Related Injury

I feel confident in assuming that we all have had ice applied to an acute injury; whether it be sprain, strain, fracture, or contusion. The application of ice to an injury began in the 70’s by Dr. Gabe Mirkins implementation of a standardized treatment for sports related injuries known as R.I.C.E. In his best-selling novel Sports Medicine Book.

Shortly after the method of rest, ice, compression, and elevation was coined and instituted by health care professionals as a standardized practice for treatment of acute injury. The method has been around for so long that even the most seasoned athlete, coach or trainer is unaware that certain components of the R.I.C.E. technique, particularly ice produces negative effects upon injury and its healing process.

Recently researchers began to question the use of ice on acute injury. While ICE reduces inflammation temporarily and is helpful with pain relief its application restricts blood flow to the muscle and its tendons. From a Chinese medicine perspective, it causes stagnation of qi, blood and fluids. These side effects actually impede the healing process and may ultimately increase the potential for injury.

Here’s what our good friend Greg Johnston, acupuncturist and TCM herbalist, had to say about the use of ice for injuries in an interview we did with him just a few months ago (click on the image below to be taken to YouTube video):

Inflammation is the body's attempt to remove damaged cells, irritants, or pathogens – needed in order to begin the healing process. When something harmful effects a part of the body, there is a biological response to try to remove it. The signs and symptoms of inflammation show that the body is trying to heal itself with the production of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1), a hormone that promotes the healing of tissue damaged by excessive exercise or trauma (American Academy Journal of Orthopedic Surgeons, Vol 7 No 5, 1995). IGF-1 is one of the most potent natural activators of cell growth and proliferation, and is a potent inhibitor of programmed cell death. IGF-1 can also regulate cell growth and development, especially in nerve cells, as well as cellular DNA synthesis.

A new PlumDragon employee had an accident just before she joined our team in which severe contusions appeared down the left side of her body. When these contusions were treated with ice, the blood that was forced out of the blood vessels stagnated inside the muscle tissue with no place to go. The blood congealed, hardened, and she said it felt like her muscle fibers had been glued together blocking circulation to the left side of her arm and shoulder. She experienced painful, blackish purple bruising that remained visible for longer than any other bruising she had experienced prior to this injury. As a result, she felt very off balance; it was later concluded that her body was not circulating qi and blood not only to the injured area but to the entire left side of my body. The improper application of ice to her injured area resulted with the experience of ongoing pain and a noticeable restriction in movement.

The restriction in movement and the feeling of off centeredness led her to an acupuncturist who introduced her to the TCM remedy San Huang San. This mixture known as “Herbal Ice” is far superior to the archaic application of ice to acute injury for several reasons.

The herbs used in San Huang San have a pain-relieving cooling effect akin to ice but they do not prohibit the production and distribution of IGF-1 like ice does. San Huang San has the opposite effect; while helping with inflammation it does not stagnate the injury—San Huang San increases circulation to the affected areas, which speeds up the body’s natural healing process. As a result, it’s a highly effective treatment for sprains, muscle spasms and soreness, and bruising.

Our skin is an organ, everything applied topically is absorbed and processed through the body; San Huang San is a powdered mixture of herbs that can be made into a paste using green tea which than can be applied to the affected area- It is safe, natural and the mixture can be left on for up to 12 hours.

I was further astonished to learn that cold compresses may also have a negative effect on athletic performance. A study found that athletes who applied a cold compress to their injuries for at least 20 minutes reported a decrease in strength, speed, power and agility-based running (Sports Med, Nov 28, 2011). San Huang San can not only be used as a method for healing acute injury after a workout but also aiding preexisting injury as we begin to train again, and it will not impede athletic performance but enhance it.

In short, San Huang San reduces swelling while increasing circulation aiding in the restoration of normal movement and function quickly; reduces pain and stiffness without stagnation of the affected area. The herb formulation helps limit inflammation without prohibiting the production and distribution of the Insulin Growth Factor which supports the body’s natural immune response that is needed for rapid recovery.

Any time you have a fresh injury with significant swelling and inflammation, or if you have tightness, sensitivity, and reduced range of motion, San Huang San should be one of the first things you consider using.

Roughly translated as Three Yellow Powder, San Huang San is a very old and well-known formula used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), both as a standalone recipe and as a base for larger formulas with more specific targets.
Our new employee is no longer using ice as a first responder to acute injury!

If you would like to learn more about how San Huang San can be used to heal fresh injuries, there is another blog article on this subject, HERE.

To learn more about Greg Johnston, LAc, check out his bio on his website or contact him through his website, HERE.

* Please note that the story related above and the information provided is based on personal experience with the application of ice to injury and the use of successful use of San Huang San.


This information is not intended to cure, treat or prevent any diseases or preexisting conditions. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. Please consult your doctor before changing your prescribed regimen.

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