This is an interesting topic, as think it can be related to the work I do as an Alexander Technique teacher, which could be described as learning to inhibit “natural” responses to stress and injury when those responses are harmful.
While there are studies that show that icing and/or anti-inflammatory drugs slow healing of serious injuries (one study I read involved fractures), there is much anecdotal evidence that stopping inflammation in the case of minor injuries and over-use injuries can speed healing.
In the case of the A.T., there are natural protective responses to stress and injury (Moro reflex, startle reflex), which are useful in certain cases – splinting of muscles in the back to prevent spinal cord damage, for example, or retraction and adduction of limbs after a traumatic injury that may involve a bone break. In fact, such retractive, adductive responses cause young apes to clutch and hold their mothers in an emergency situation (tiger approaching) so that she may have both arms free to brachiate to safety. However, such responses to minor stressors simply disturb normal postural muscle tone and can be quite harmful in the long run, especially when they become habits. It’s certainly better not to harden one’s muscles in response to minor injury, as it is clearly better to continue normal movement of joints, ligaments and muscles to promote healing – one just needs avoid the extremes of normal movement in force and range of motion.
One might suggest something similar in the case of inflammation. It may be helpful, even necessary, in certain kinds of serious injury, but in minor injuries it might be better to inhibit it with ice so that normal movement may continue and healthy circulation is not limited.
Certainly there are many very experienced athletes who rely on icing, and certainly know the difference between how they move forward with or without icing. That baseball pitcher with his elbow in an ice bath after the game certainly knows what happens when he does not avail himself of that icing.
Here’s an example of the body naturally over-reacting to trauma from my recent history. Two weeks ago, I fell from my bike onto my back and head. It was totally a result of my own stupidity – I’d strapped a box on my rear rack that over-balanced the bike. I won’t go into details, but I fell and was alright immediately afterwards. However, the day after, I began to have lower back spasm, and intense pain, making it difficult to even turn over in bed, much less put on socks. I reasoned (I hoped!) that I had no serious injury, but my back was splinting, telling me, “don’t you move, don’t you fucking move!” Because of my long experience with directing my muscles to lengthen and opening myself out of retractive habits, I was able to work on inhibiting the spasms and splinting, and I’m pretty much back to normal. I just returned from a rollerski, which went fine (except I was really afraid of falling, which is a regular part of the sport).
At any rate, I find this to be an example of the body’s reflex, but sometimes inappropriate, response in injury, much like excessive inflammation could be in the case of minor injury or overuse. In that case, perhaps icing is a good idea.