How Long Should Ice Be Applied?

Photo of a woman with ice on her knee.
Know when to stop using ice by listening to your symptoms.. PhotoAlto/Odilon Dimier/Getty Images

After injury or surgery, you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist to help guide you during the recovery process.  Your PT will likely use various therapeutic modalities and exercises to help control your pain and swelling, improve your range of motion and strength, and help you return to your normal activities.

Ice is often applied to your injured body part during physical therapy or at home as part of the R.I.C.E. method.

 R.I.C.E. stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.  (More recently, the P.O.L.I.C.E. acronym of protection, optimal loading, ice, compression, and elevation has been used in PT clinics to help guide the use of ice and activity after injury.)

How long should ice be applied to the body to control pain and swelling after injury?  Most experts recommend using ice for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, but everyone is unique, and different people tolerate ice differently.

When applying ice, there is a way to gauge how long it should be applied to your body based upon what you are feeling while icing.  The symptoms you feel as you are icing will change as you keep the ice on your body.  Those symptoms are:

  • Cold:  When you initially place ice on your body, it will feel cold - very cold.  This initial cold feeling will last a few minutes, and then you will start to feel the next symptom.
  • Burn:  After a few minutes of feeling cold, you will then start to feel a burning sensation under the ice pack.  Don't worry; this is normal and should not be a cause for alarm.
  • Ache:  After a few minutes of burning, you will start to feel an ache as the ice remains on your body.  Feeling the ache is normal, and it is a sign that you are almost done icing.
  • Numb: The final symptom you will feel while icing is numb.  When things start to feel numb, you should remove the ice from your body.

    Remember, once your body part being iced feels numb, remove the ice and inspect your skin.  An easy way to remember the order of the symptoms you feel while icing is to remember the acronym C.B.A.N.

    Be aware of ice burns, known as cryoburn, that may indicate that the ice was too cold for your skin to tolerate.  When using ice, be sure to place a towel between your skin and the ice pack to help protect your skin and check your skin often while icing to ensure it is not causing harm.

    Using ice after an injury or surgery is a great way to manage the pain and swelling that comes with inflammation.  Your physical therapist can help you decide if ice is right for you, and he or she can instruct you in how long and how frequently you should use ice.

    By monitoring your symptoms while icing - progressing through cold, burn, ache, and finally numbness - you can be sure that you are using ice properly and safely for your specific condition.

    Source:  Prentice, W. (1998). Therapeutic modalities for allied health professionals. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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