Ice Therapy – How Does It Work?


You sprain your ankle or pull your back – what’s the most common
recommendation you’ll get from a friend or family remember? “Put some ice
on it,” right? You might be curious how ice therapy works exactly and if it
is really beneficial for treating acute injuries.

Part of the ‘RICE’ treatment – rest, ice, compression, and elevation – ice
therapy might include applying an ice pack or other cold compress,
receiving ice massage, or soaking an injured body part in an ice bath.

There are best practices when it comes to applying ice packs to avoid ice burn and further injury, but when administered correctly, ice can be a powerful tool to relieve acute pain and swelling.

How Does Ice Reduce Pain?

The cold sensation of an ice pack applied to the skin for 10 to 20 minutes actually has a somewhat analgesic effect. It slows the conductivity of sensitive nerve impulses around the injured area which are sending pain signals back to the brain, essentially providing a numbing effect and preventing nerve-spasming.

How Does Ice Reduce Swelling?

Ice therapy generates a cold shock to the area of application which makes the veins in the tissue constrict, reducing blood circulation and therefore inflammation of the injured area. This can also prevent tissue damage.

After the ice is removed, blood flows back in carrying oxygen and nutrients vital to tissue repair and wound healing.

How Should Ice Be Applied?

A handful of misconceptions about ice therapy may actually cause more harm than benefit when it comes to aiding a painful injury. Ice and ice packs should never be applied directly to skin, but rather some sort of barrier like clothing, a towel, or a soft cover over the ice pack should be used in conjunction with the cold therapy.

Ice packs should not be left on an injured area for more than 10 to 20 minutes at a time, and should be reapplied up to three times a day. Only after swelling has subsided 48 to 72 hours later should heat therapy be considered.

Ice massage may also be a cold therapy alternative that soothes sore back muscles and provides pain relief typically to the lumbar spine region. Ice massage involves taking an extra large ice cube and moving it around the lower back area in a circular motion for no more than 5 minutes at a time.

Because ice massage involves constantly moving the ice and only doing it
for a limited amount of minutes, you avoid ice burn even though you are
applying the ice directly to the skin. Your body can handle ice massage up
to five times a day.

Ice baths, or cold water immersion, are popular with athletes and runners after an exhausting performance because they cover more surface area of the body with cold thus restricting blood vessels, inflammation, and reducing metabolic activity on a greater number of muscle groups. When you exit an ice bath, the underlying tissues begin to warm up and blood flow back to the area increases quickly, flushing out metabolic debris and speeding up tissue repair. Experts recommend ice bathing in water between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit and soaking for no more than 10 or 20 minutes at a time.

What Are Common Types of Ice Packs?

Most drug stores and big box stores carry ‘reusable’ ice packs which can be frozen, used, and refrozen. Typically comprised of a synthetic gel material in a flexible or hard plastic casing, reusable ice packs are inexpensive and effective. Alternately, one-time use, or disposable, ice packs may be room temperature to start and become cold through a chemical reaction of the compounds inside them when shaken or broken. Great for having on hand when playing sports, disposable ice packs are convenient, but considerably more expensive and not as eco-friendly.

Experiencing a leg injury and don’t have a reusable ice pack for knee or ankle pain handy? There are plenty of common household items you can use for ice therapy to treat a painful injury like an ankle sprain. Grab a bag of frozen vegetables out of the freezer, freeze a wet towel or sponge, or even fill a resealable baggy with dish detergent and freeze it to make your
own faux gel pack.

Ice therapy can be a beneficial instrument in the injury and post-athletic play toolkit. By following expert best practices and committing to routine treatment with ice packs, ice massage, or cold baths, speeding up your body’s healing capabilities may be just an ice cube away.

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Pharmaceutical analyst who loves blogging about health and medical issues. Has written more than 150 articles and a book on attention deficit disorder. Correctly predicted delayed approval of Bydureon, approval of Provenge by FDA, and the non-approval of Acthar on June 11.

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