Icing an Injury - Treatment of Inflammation

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Learn options for icing an injury.. nolimitpictures / Getty Images

Icing an injured body part can be an important part of treatment. Icing injuries can be effective for sprains, strains, overuse injuries, muscle contusions, and bruises. Ice can help to decrease inflammation and alleviate pain, but there are some details to icing an injury that can make the treatment safer and more effective.  Learn how to properly ice your injury to help get you on the road to the fastest possible recovery.

Here's How:

  1. Get the ice on quickly.
    Icing is most effective in the immediate time period following an injury. The effect of icing diminishes significantly after about 48 hours.  In an effort to reduce swelling and minimize inflammation, try to get the ice applied as soon as possible after the injury.
  2. Perform an "ice massage."
    Apply ice directly to the injury. Move the ice frequently, not allowing it to sit in one spot.  Many athletes will perform an ice massage where they use a frozen block of ice and massage into the area of discomfort, to prevent prolonged direct contact of the ice to one specific location.
  3. Don't forget to elevate.
    Keep the injured body part elevated above the heart while icing -- this will further help reduce swelling.  By moving you quickly through the inflammatory phase of healing, your body can more quickly enter the repair phase of your recovery.
  4. Watch the clock.
    Ice for 15-20 minutes, but never longer. You can cause further damage to the tissues, including frostbite, by icing for too long.  As mentioned earlier, performing an ice massage can be a safe and effective way to ensure skin and soft tissues are less likely to be damaged. 
  1. Allow time between treatments.
    Allow area to warm for at least 45 minutes or an hour before beginning the icing routine again.  Repeating ice application can be helpful as inflammation and swelling can be prolonged processes.  Give your body a chance to recover between applications.
  2. Repeat as desired.
    Ice as frequently as you wish, so long as the area is warm to touch and has normal sensation before repeating.  Again, inflammation can persist for 48 hours or longer after an injury, and limiting the degree of swelling and inflammation can help to move your recovery along.

    Tips:

    1. Ice Option 1 -- Traditional: Use a Ziploc bag with ice cubes or crushed ice. Add a little water to the ice bag so it will conform to your body.
    2. Ice Option 2 -- Best: Keep paper cups filled with water in your freezer. Peel the top of the cup away and massage the ice-cup over the injury in a circular pattern allowing the ice to melt away.
    3. Ice Option 3 -- Creative: Use a bag of frozen peas or corn from the frozen goods section. This option provides a reusable treatment method that is also edible.
    4. Ice Option 4 -- Commercial: There are many products sold that can be reused to help you ice an injured body part.  Many of these are designed to conform to a specific part of the body.
    5. Prevent Frostbite: Do not allow ice to sit against the skin without a layer of protection. Either continually move the ice (see "ice massage") or use a thin towel between the ice and skin.

    Sources: Hubbard TJ, Denegar CR. "Does Cryotherapy Improve Outcomes With Soft Tissue Injury?" J Athl Train. 2004 Sep;39(3):278-279.

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