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How to ICE your injury

Not just for cooling your beverages.

Updated: Dec 23, 2012

Just rolled an ankle? Twisted your thumb back? Banged your knee hard? Now it’s starting to swell up?

Or, maybe it’s some nagging, persistent type of pain in your elbow, knee, or wrist. Either way, you’re looking for some relief NOW.

Well, here is one thing that just might ease your pain that is drug free, costs nothing, and (as long as you have a refrigerator) can be started right away, tonight!


First of all, if you are confused with whether or not you should be using heat or ice, check out this article: Ice or Heat?

Why use ice?

Also known as ‘cryotherapy’ in the therapy world (which makes it sound really cool and interesting, like freezing yourself and waking up in the future), cold therapy is perhaps the most popular treatment for new sports injuries.

It is part of the classic P.R.I.C.E. method after acute injuries.

  • P: Protect
  • R: Rest
  • I: Ice <— you are here.
  • C: Compression
  • E: Elevation

How does it work?

Recovery: By constricting (narrowing) your blood vessels, cold therapy decreases blood flow. This ‘vasoconstriction’ can help reduce swelling. Reducing swelling helps decrease excess inflammation 1 and may prevent bleeding into surrounding tissue 2, preventing further damage.

Pain: Similarly, cold therapy can slow nerve conduction velocity (how fast signals travel) which may increase your pain threshold and pain tolerance 3. Therefore, ice is helpful for pain 4, and may help you start early mobilization. Pain can be confusing, so check out the pain section of this site if this is a problem for you.

Does it even work?

Interestingly, even for something as simple and common as ice therapy, the research is still inconclusive! 5 This is probably because there are huge differences in how people respond to it. Aside from the warnings listed below, there is really no harm in trying. For some people, it works really well, so give it a shot!

What can I use ice for?

Ice is most commonly used for:

Again, read the article: Ice or Heat? if you are still confused.

How do I ice my injury?

Find an ice pack of appropriate size, and make sure it’s reasonably cold. The temperature you are going for is around 0° to -5° Celsius, so after being in the freezer for two hours it’s probably cold enough.

It’s a good idea to wrap that baby in a towel if it doesn’t come with a sleeve, as the cold plastic can stick to your skin! You don’t need to wet the towel.

Straps FTW

Sometimes it’s annoying to just sit around with an ice pack on. And you can’t hardly move without them falling off. Therefore, I recommend ice packs that come with straps like the one pictured to the right.

Apply the ice pack for a total of 20 minutes. It seems that if you ice for 10 minutes, take a 10 minute break, and then ice 10 more minutes, the immediate results in pain relief with activity are better. However, whether you do 20 minutes continuously or split it up, there seems to be no difference in overall results after a week 6.

After the 20 minutes of ice, give yourself a break. You can repeat this every two hours. More than this may cause side effects, like frostbite! 7

Are there any safety concerns?

Of course!

Possible side effects can include:

If you ice too long or too cold, you put yourself at risk of:

  • Frost bite, as said above.
  • Nerve or other tissue damage.
  • Slower wound healing.

Contraindications huh? (no, I didn’t mean to say contradictions)

In plain English, these are warnings. Don’t use heat or ice in these cases. If you’re not sure, check with your doctor. read: disclaimer!

  • Check for red flags
  • Decreased sensation
  • Known malignancy (tumor)
  • Hypertension
  • Raynaud’s disease
  • Circulation concerns, such as ischemia, frostbite or arteriosclerosis
  • Cold allergy (yup)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

That’s it!

You’re ready to ice! Now go try it. For more advice on how to treat your injury, be sure to go through the injury section of this site.

Good luck!

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