How Long Should You Ice an Injury?

"How long should I ice an injury?" is a common question asked in physical therapy clinics.

Icing an injury can help reduce swelling and pain. Still, there are limits to how long you should keep ice on an injured body part.

This article discusses the use of ice on injuries. It also discusses how long to apply the ice 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. This is 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.

Recap

Ice helps reduce the pain and swelling of an injury. It does this by narrowing the blood vessels. This causes less blood to reach the injury.

When to Stop Icing

Ice should be applied to an injury for 10 minutes at a time. Longer applications may cause tissue damage. You can apply ice several times each day.

Ten minutes is a general guideline. You may not be able to tolerate the full 10 minutes. If you're not sure when to stop, use the CBAN method of icing. CBAN stands for:

  • Cold
  • Burn
  • Ache
  • Numb

The CBAN method uses your own body's feedback to tell you when to remove the ice.

When you first apply the ice, it should feel cold. The feeling should progress to a burning sensation. This should only last for a few minutes. Next, the area will feel achy.

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.

Recap

In general, don't keep ice on an injury for more than 10 minutes. Follow your body's signals. When the area becomes numb, it's time to remove the ice.

Is Ice Really Necessary?

Icing an injury has been conventional wisdom for a long time. Research published in 2012, though, suggests it may not be absolutely necessary. Still, ice can help make your injury feel better.

Many experts say you should limit ice to short periods of time. It may be best to keep the ice on for at least five minutes, and then off for at least 30 minutes. Removing the ice will restore normal blood flow.

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

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

Recap

Ice may not help your body heal. It can reduce pain, though. Make sure you follow your doctor's other instructions to help your injury heal.

Making Your Own Ice Pack

Icing works best with a proper ice pack. If you don't have an ice pack, you can make a refreezable one. 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.

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.

Summary

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 10 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.

  • 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. Take 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. This is a painful muscular condition. Perniosis, an inflammation of small blood vessels in reaction to cold exposure has also been associated with over-icing.

  • How many days can you ice an injury?

    In general, it's okay 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.

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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.
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  4. National Organization for Rare Disorders. Perniosis.

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