How to Properly Ice an Injury

Ice on left knee joint
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Icing an injured body part is commonly performed with the goal of reducing swelling and inflammation. In addition, many people will apply ice to an injured area to help relieve pain. Icing injuries can be used for sprains, strains, overuse injuries, muscle contusions, and bruises. Ice application has been thought to help decrease inflammation and alleviate pain, but there are some details to icing an injury that can make the treatment safer and more effective. Learn how to properly ice your injury to help get you on the road to the fastest possible recovery.

Proper Icing Technique

  1. Get the ice on quickly. Icing is most effective in the immediate time period following an injury. The effect of icing diminishes significantly after about 48 hours. In an effort to reduce swelling and minimize inflammation, try to get the ice applied as soon as possible after the injury.
  2. Perform an "ice massage." Apply ice directly to the injury. Move the ice frequently, not allowing it to sit in one spot. Many athletes will perform an ice massage where they use a frozen block of ice and massage into the area of discomfort, to prevent prolonged direct contact of the ice to one specific location.
  3. Don't forget to elevate. Keep the injured body part elevated above the heart while icing; this will further help reduce swelling. By moving you quickly through the inflammatory phase of healing, your body can more quickly enter the repair phase of your recovery.
  4. Watch the clock. Ice for 15-20 minutes, but never longer. You can cause further damage to the tissues, including frostbite, by icing for too long. As mentioned earlier, performing an ice massage can be a safe and effective way to ensure skin and soft tissues are less likely to be damaged.
  1. Allow time between treatments. Allow area to warm for at least 45 minutes or an hour before beginning the icing routine again. Repeating ice application can be helpful as inflammation and swelling can be prolonged processes. Give your body a chance to recover between applications.
  2. Repeat as desired. Ice as frequently as you wish so long as the area is warm to touch and has normal sensation before repeating. Again, inflammation can persist for 48 hours or longer after an injury, and limiting the degree of swelling and inflammation can help to move your recovery along.

Tips

  1. Ice Option 1 - Traditional: Use a Ziploc bag with ice cubes or crushed ice. Add a little water to the ice bag so it will conform to your body.
  2. Ice Option 2 - Best: Keep paper cups filled with water in your freezer. Peel the top of the cup away and massage the ice cup over the injury in a circular pattern allowing the ice to melt away.
  3. Ice Option 3 - Creative: Use a bag of frozen peas or corn from the frozen goods section. This option provides a reusable treatment method that is also edible.
  4. Ice Option 4 - Commercial: There are many products sold that can be reused to help you ice an injured body part. Many of these are designed to conform to a specific part of the body.
  5. Prevent Frostbite: Do not allow ice to sit on the skin without a layer of protection. Either continually move the ice (see "ice massage") or use a thin towel between the ice and skin.

A Word From Verywell

There is actually not a lot of data in the medical literature that demonstrates that ice application is a critical part of the injury recovery process. That said it is commonly performed and helps people find relief after acute injuries. For that reason, as long as ice application is performed safely, it is probably a good and reasonable step for people who have sustained these types of injuries.

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Article Sources
  • Malanga GA, Yan N, Stark J. "Mechanisms and efficacy of heat and cold therapies for musculoskeletal injury." Postgrad Med. 2015 Jan;127(1):57-65.