How to Ice an Injury: Where, How Long, and What to Use

Learn the delicate balance to icing an injury

Man with ice pack on head
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There's new evidence that may change the way you use ice to treat an injury. There are many reasons why you may need to ice an injury. Normal reasons to use ice include to reduce swelling, lessen pain and promote healing. Back pain, ankle sprains, shoulder dislocations, tendonitis and other sports injuries call for icing, but regular daily accidents, like slip-and-falls, head bumps, and stubbed toes also call for icing.

 Turns out placing frozen vegetables on bare skin may be dangerous. What's more, how long you keep ice on an injury has its limits. Here are 5 mistakes people make when icing an injury.

Icing an Injury Too Long

A young physical education teacher who used a bag of frozen potatoes wrapped in a towel to alleviate pain in her right foot left the on her foot for at least 40 minutes and the pain did go away, temporarily. Afterward, the foot became discolored and the pain returned. The woman lost feeling in a couple of her toes as a result of frostbite. After the diagnosis, she underwent surgery to treat the permanent nerve damage to two of her toes. This is clearly a case of icing an injury too long. Following the injury doctors suggested that ice packs should not be left on extremities like toes for more than half an hour.

Icing an Injury on Bare 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 low blood flow, like toes. 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.

Not Getting Enough Rest

Icing alone is not a cure all and therefore, even if you follow a regular icing routine following an injury, you must also rest to complete the healing process.

If you ice and don't allow for rest, the swelling and pain that was removed by the icing may return, and may even make the initial injury worst.

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.

Not Using Enough Compression

Along with elevation, the muscles involved in any injury need to be fully iced to reduce swelling. Therefore the ice must be applied evenly and securely to ensure the injury gets the full effect of the healing ice treatment. 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

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