How Long Should You Ice an Injury?

You should ice an injury for 20 minutes at a time. Studies have found that this offers the greatest reduction in pain while limiting unwanted effects like numbness, burning, and redness.

This article discusses the use of ice on injuries. It also discusses how long to apply ice safely and how to make your own ice pack.

A man icing his elbow

 AndreyPopov / Getty Images

What Does Ice Do?

When you injure a body part, your body goes through the inflammatory process. This helps heal the tissue. Hallmarks of inflammation include:

  • Increased tissue temperature
  • Redness
  • Pain
  • Swelling

Inflammation happens when your body sends blood and cells to the injured part to help it heal. Swelling and pain happen as a result of this process. Ice can help control those symptoms.

Ice causes vasoconstriction, a narrowing of blood vessels. When this happens, less blood reaches the injured area. This helps keep swelling down.

Ice also helps decrease pain signals.

When to Stop Icing

Ice should be applied to an injury for no more than 20 minutes at a time. Longer applications may cause tissue damage. You can apply ice several times each day.

You may not be able to tolerate the full 20 minutes. Use the CBAN method to tune into your body's feedback about when to stop:

  • Cold: Your skin should feel cold when you first apply the ice pack.
  • Burn: A burning sensation should then set in and last a few minutes.
  • Ache: It will then progress to an achy feeling.
  • Numb: When the injury starts to feel numb, it is time to remove the ice. This is true regardless of how much time it's been on your body.

You could also try keeping the ice on for at least five minutes, taking it off, and only applying it again after 30 minutes.

Is It OK to Use Ice for 30 minutes at a Time?

This is not advised. Icing an injury for 30 minutes can lead to uncomfortable effects such as numbness and burning, or even tissue damage.

Is Ice Really Necessary?

Icing an injury has been conventional wisdom for a long time. While it can help reduce pain and inflammation, ice doesn't speed up healing.

In other words, your recovery time won't be shorter because you treated your injury with ice.

Use ice along with your doctor's recommendations. Following the POLICE principle can help you manage your injury:

  • Protection, or avoiding overuse
  • Optimum loading, which means using the body part gently
  • Ice
  • Compression with an elastic bandage
  • Elevation, keeping the body part raised

Making Your Own Ice Pack

Icing works best with a proper ice pack. If you don't have one, you can make a refreezable one at home. Here's how:

  1. Place ice cubes and a cup of water into a zipper-closure plastic bag.
  2. Add a few tablespoons of rubbing alcohol. (This keeps the solution from turning into a solid block.)
  3. Seal the bag and allow it to freeze.

When you apply the ice pack, make sure to put a layer or two of fabric, such as a towel, between the pack and your skin. This will protect you from frostbite.

Ice vs. Heat

Ice and heat are both effective ways of treating injuries, but they should be used for different kinds of injuries and at different points during the healing process.

Ice can help relieve swelling and inflammation and reduce pain, especially in the first 72 hours after the injury occurs. 

Heat can help relax tight or strained muscles. It can also be helpful if you have joint pain caused by arthritis. Heat is not appropriate just after an injury, however, or when you have swelling and inflammation.


Ice helps reduce the pain and swelling of an injury. You can ice an injury a few times a day, but avoid keeping the ice on for more than 20 minutes at once. When the injury feels numb, remove the ice.

Ice can help your injury feel better, but it may not be necessary for healing. Follow your doctor's advice and be careful with your injury. It may also help to use compression and keep the area elevated.

If you don't have an ice pack, you can make one with water, rubbing alcohol, and a plastic bag.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is icing an injury called?

    When ice is used to reduce pain and inflammation caused by an injury, including after surgical procedures, it's called cryotherapy.

  • What can happen if you leave an ice pack on your skin for too long?

    You could develop frostbite and tissue death. There also have been isolated instances of compartment syndrome (a painful muscular condition) and perniosis (inflammation of small blood vessels in reaction to cold exposure).

  • How many days can you ice an injury?

    In general, it's OK to use ice for as long as you have pain, swelling, and inflammation (no more than 20 minutes per application).

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mutlu S, Yılmaz E. The effect of soft tissue injury cold application duration on symptoms, edema, joint mobility, and patient satisfaction: a randomized controlled trial. J Emerg Nurs. 2020;46(4):449-59. doi:10.1016/j.jen.2020.02.017

  2. Khoshnevis S, Craik NK, Diller KR. Cold-induced vasoconstriction may persist long after cooling ends: an evaluation of multiple cryotherapy unitsKnee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc. 2015;23(9):2475–2483. doi:10.1007/s00167-014-2911-y

  3. Wang ZR, Ni GX. Is it time to put traditional cold therapy in rehabilitation of soft-tissue injuries out to pasture? World J Clin Cases. 2021;9(17):4116-4122. doi:10.12998/wjcc.v9.i17.4116

  4. Piana LE, Garvey KD, Burns H, et al. The cold, hard facts of cryotherapy in orthopedicsAm J Orthop (Belle Mead NJ). 2018;47(9):10.12788/ajo.2018.0075. doi:10.12788/ajo.2018.0075

  5. University of Michigan Health. Using ice and cold packs.

By Laura Inverarity, DO
 Laura Inverarity, PT, DO, is a current board-certified anesthesiologist and former physical therapist.