To ice, or not to ice

There are times where a little knowledge of biology can be harmful to understanding.  For example, whenever the body is accosted by injury or illness, the natural response is typically inflammation (redness, heat, swelling and a few other things).  By biological standards, swelling is a good thing.  It increases the ability of fluid to move around near the injured area, allowing increased blood flow and enabling the body to fight off the nasty things that are damaging it faster and more effectively.  Along comes the question that any runner will have run across: should I ice a swelling injury?  Admittedly, my first reaction would be “well, golly, if swelling is the body fighting back, you should let it run its course!”  Turns out, sports therapy disagrees with my limited understanding of the body’s innate responses to injury.

The human body, much like the human race, tends to overreact to anything that happens to it.  Rolled ankles and sore joints will typically get a similar, albeit weaker, response to more severe injuries such as gashes and busted bones.  Given that over time, humanity has gotten surprisingly good at adding exoskeleton systems to reinforce injured limbs, it makes sense that we reduce swelling with most injuries simply because we (by we I mean doctors) can typically help the injury more than the body can.  Why let the body make clumsy efforts at repairing a bone if you could just reset it and lock the thing in place with a plaster mold until it seals together?

The long story short of the icing debate is: swelling bad, ice good.

The standard for sports medicine is to ice an acute injury and to heat a chronic one.  Acute injuries are those that happen suddenly and for obvious reasons (rolled ankle is a great example; when it happens, you know it happened).  Acute injuries are sudden and the body’s response is a five alarm fire of swelling and redness.  Adding ice to the injury will do what ice does best: shrink down the blood vessels and reduce blood flow to the injured area.  Reduced blood flow reduces swelling, which in turn will allow the area to move without discomfort or pain.  Icing is done for things like sore muscles, reducing the swelling will allow use of the muscle without reducing mobility.  Science says to only ice for 10 minutes at a time for every hour, otherwise you run the risk of causing limited frostbite damage to the skin (also, wrap your ice in a towel, no skin to ice contact)

Never let the ice touch the skin.  It never goes well.

As for heating, sports therapy says to do that for chronic injuries.  Chronic injuries are those that happen over time, things like stress fractures and grinding joints.  Heating the area improves blood flow to it and increases the overall ability of the body to heal the damaged zone.  The general rule of thumb is that you want moist heat to help the body the most (like a hot towel that you lay over the knee or something like that).  Heating a swollen area is a no go, increasing the flow of fluid to a place already swollen can cause some types of damage or stretching to the skin.

As for what makes something chronic or acute…  The technical definition is rather limited.  Generally, the standard is to ice something that is less than 24 hour old, and to heat something that is more than 48 hours old.  Anything in between those two is sort of the gray zone where you aren’t sure if it was a minor injury or if it is something that will stay with you for a long time.


Ancient Grecian iMac

In April of 1900, a cadre of Greek sponge divers (literally divers who collect sponges off the sea bed) located a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera (anti-kith-era).  When the first diver whipped off his helmet and babbled about having found treasure, the world did not know just how impressive the find was.  Dozens of statues, adornments, objects, jars, pots and whatnot were brought up.  Artifacts from over 2,000 years before, dating back to somewhere around 140 BCE.  Among the finds were some of the most impressively preserved bronze statues from the era.

The Antikythera philosopher and the Antikythera youth.  Bronze sculptures of exceptional quality and craftsmanship.

Two years later, when the excitement had died down a bit, curators began to work with the less impressive finds from the Antikythera shipwreck.  Among the doodads and chunks of pots that they parsed through was a blob of wood and bronze, previously unnoticed because of how prosaic it was.  While checking over the artifacts, archaeologist Valerios Stais noticed that there was a gear squashed into the metal.  His first assumption was that the thing was some sort of astrological clock, built by the Greeks millenia before Enlightenment Europeans even tried to puzzle together a clockwork.  Historians and archaeologists largely ignored the claims of Stais, arguing that a geared mechanism would be far beyond the capacity of ancient people, even the Greeks.

This is the main gear, it has over 200 fine teeth and served a specific purpose.  For some perspective, when this thing was made, Caesar was still around.  The Antikythera device was Thousands of years ahead of its time.

The mechanism was relatively forgotten until the 1950s, when an Archaeologist and a Nuclear Physicist worked together and X-ray’d the entire bronze piece, finding several more layers of gears and inscriptions underneath the outer corrosion.  The device was recreated in the flurry of research that followed the find.  Inventors found that the mechanism was likely used to tell time on an astrological scale.  Spinning one of the nobs would cause the device to whir to life and would show you the relative positions of the Sun, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter, as well as showing the relative position of stars, the day, and perhaps most importantly, it could predict eclipses far in to the future.  The mechanism even had advanced enough mechanics that it could take into account the epicycles of Greek astronomy (Greeks had a Geocentric model of the universe, everything revolved around Earth.  If you think that the planets revolve around the Earth, then you have to come up with a really creative way of explaining positions of the planets.  Instead of going with a Heliocentric model, most Europeans agreed upon the idea that planets would orbit Earth all the while making tiny orbits of their own about imaginary centerpoints.  The bobbling of the planets in a Geocentric model would more or less align the positions of the planets, but it made the math impressively difficult to do.)

If you have 8 minutes to watch, this video gives a more complete description as well as a more visual model of the mechanism:

Epicycles made the math work, but at what cost…

60 years of work has come up with several conclusions: That we don’t know who made the thing; it may have been directly based on a device made by Archimedes, it may have been an original creation by a Greek mathematician.  That we really are unsure when it was made; recent findings say 205 BCE, older beliefs say 140 BCE (this is important, it means the math that the mechanism used was either a Greek creation or a Babylonian creation depending on when it was built).  That we are fairly sure that there must be other inventions like this one, and that the Greeks were advanced far beyond our wildest dreams in their technical skills.  Until we find something else similar to it, the Antikythera mechanism remains the only ancient computer we have ever found.  Cicero talks about there being devices like it, planetariums and similar manual automatons, but all we currently know about the impressive computers of the ancient world comes from a small box of bronze, tin, and wood that we scraped off the sea floor.