How Long Should You Ice an Injury?

One of the most common questions asked in outpatient physical therapy clinics is, "How long should I ice an injury?" When should ice be applied, and how long should you keep the ice on your injured body part?

Ice should be applied to an acute injury for 10 minutes at a time. Any longer than this could result in tissue damage to the skin by frostbite or lack of blood flow. You can apply ice several times each day.

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 to help heal the tissue. Hallmarks of inflammation include:

  • Increased tissue temperature
  • Redness
  • Pain
  • Swelling

And guess what? Your body is really good at sending blood and cells to an injured body part to heal it. Almost too good. That's why we use ice to control swelling and pain.

When ice is applied to your body, it causes vasoconstriction, which limits blood flow to a specific body part. That limited circulation helps to keep swelling down. The ice also helps to decrease pain signals that you may be feeling after your injury.

When to Stop Icing

The 10 minute ice time is really just a general guideline. What if you just can't tolerate 10 minutes of icing on an injured body part? Is there another way to know when to stop icing?

There is. You can use the CBAN method of icing. CBAN is an acronym that stands for cold, burn, ache, numb. Those are the sensations you should feel when applying ice to your injured body part.

When you first put ice on, it should feel cold. After keeping ice in place on your injured body part for a few minutes, you should feel a slight burning sensation. This should only last for a few minutes, and then it will be replaced by an ache.

After the aching, you will notice that the ice is making your skin feel numb. When you get to the numb feeling, it is time to remove the ice, regardless of the amount of time you have placed the ice on your body. The CBAN acronym simply uses your own body's sensations to tell you when to remove the ice.

Is Ice Really Necessary?

Icing an injury has been the conventional wisdom for some time, but research published in 2012 indicates that it may not be absolutely necessary. After all, your body has been healing itself for quite some time. Why all of the sudden should we control that process by using ice?

Ice can help make your injury feel better, so many experts recommend using ice for only a short period of time. It may be best to keep the ice on for at least five minutes, and then off for 30 minutes to restore normal blood flow.

Bottom line: check-in with your healthcare provider use the CBAN method and keep your injured body part moving. Using the P.O.L.I.C.E. principle is a good idea, too. That stands for proteciont, optimum loading, ice, compression, and elevation.

Making Your Own Ice Pack

If you don't have an ice pack or if your ice bag melts and then freezes again into a big block of ice, your icing won't be very effective. You can make your own ice pack that you can refreeze again and again without it becoming a big ice block. Here's how:

  1. Place ice cubes and a cup of water into a plastic bag.
  2. Add a few tablespoons of rubbing alcohol.
  3. Seal the bag. The alcohol will prevent the ice from forming a big block in the freezer.

Icing in recent years has been under scrutiny. Is it really effective? Is it necessary? One thing is for sure: it can help decrease your pain and make you feel good.

A Word From Verywell

When icing, use the CBAN method, keep the ice on for only about 10 minutes, and keep your body part moving before and after icing. Checking with your healthcare provider or physical therapist is a good idea to learn exactly how to manage your injury.

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.

  • Is it OK to use ice for 30 minutes at a time?

    Probably not. It's generally advisable to expose skin to ice for no more than 10 minutes at a time, with a 30 to 40-minute break between applications.

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

    It can put you at risk for a number of complications, including frostbite and tissue necrosis. 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) associated with over-icing.

  • 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. A typical protocol is to apply ice for 10 minutes at a time once per hour for the first 72 hours. From then on, ice should be used three times a day—morning, midday, and a half-hour before bed—for 15 to 20 minutes.

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  4. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Perniosis.

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