Ice Packs for Injuries: Don't Make These Five Common Icing Mistakes

Man with ice pack on head
Bellurget Jean Louis/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Using an ice pack on a sports injury is a common practice, but many people make some common mistakes when using ice on a sports injury. It turns out that tossing an ice pack on an injury and hoping for the best may not be the ideal injury treatment option.

Here are a few of the pros and cons for using ice on  a variety of injuries and the biggest mistakes people make when attempting to ice their aches an pains.

Why Use Ice on an Injury

The most common reason to use ice on a sports injury is to reduce pain and swelling to the injured soft tissues. The traditional first aid treatment: r.i.c.e. ("rest, ice, compression and elevation"), has been the standard first aid for decades and is often used on sports injuries, such as ankle sprains, tendonitis, back pain, bruises and contusions of all sorts. And while ice has been shown to greatly reduce swelling and pain immediately after an acute injury including sprains, in some cases, reducing inflammation may actually hinder healing, so it's important to use ice the right way. 

Five mistakes people make when icing an injury

1. Icing an Injury Too Long

Leaving ice on an injury for too long can cause more harm than good. Because ice constricts the blood vessels, it can reduce the blood flow to the injured area and slow the healing process.  The ideal time to ice an injury is immediately after the trauma, and then only for about ten minutes at a time.

It's important to allow the tissues to 'warm up' again before putting ice back on the injury. Ice should not be needed after the first 24 hours, unless your doctor recommends it to reduce active swelling or to relieve pain. 

2. Applying Ice Directly to Bare Skin

Done incorrectly, ice may cause frostbite and damage to the delicate tissues of the skin.

 While exposure to cold can ease pain and swelling, ice packs can also stop blood flow if left on the skin too long. For this reason, a bag of frozen vegetables should be wrapped in a towel if used on extremities with very low blood flow, such as toes or hands. If the injury occurs in an area with little fat or muscle beneath the skin, such as fingers, take the compress off after 10 minutes maximum, wait 5 minutes and reapply.

3. Not Resting the Injury While Icing

Icing alone is not a cure all and therefore, even if you follow a the recommendations for safe icing of an injury,  you must also rest the injured joint immediately after the injury occurs. Continuing the play sports with an injury may prolong the healing process, so check with your doctor regarding when you can return to sports after an injury

4. Not Elevating the Injury

Just as rest is essential, reducing swelling is an important part of the healing process. Because reducing swelling requires elevating the injury above the heart (to increase blood circulation), you must ice the injury while it's elevated. If you don't, you're simply reducing pain by numbing the area with ice, but the swelling won't go away without elevation.

5. Not Using Enough Compression

Along with elevation, using a compression wrap on an injury will help reduce the swelling and pain in the injured joint.  If compression is not sufficient, then again, the swelling decrease will not last, and the pain level may not go down as well as it would have had were it properly applied.

For more information about using ice to reduce swelling, read R.I.C.E for Injuries

Continue Reading