Icing is one of the classic injury treatments we learn when we’re young, along with rest, elevation, and compression. This simple pain-relieving technique may sometimes do more harm than good when misused - follow our guide below to learn how long to ice an injury to reduce inflammation and help kickstart the healing process.
The initial 48 hours after an injury is crucial - though the last thing you’re likely thinking about is the future while you’re in a bunch of painright now,it’s time to treat your body well and apply some simple techniques to make healing as quick and painless as possible.
Most of us have already experienced using ice for injury treatment or pain relief already - when I was a wee kid, my mother had towel rabbits that held an ice cube lovingly named “boo-boo bunnies” that had their fair share of use around our house.
For an ice treatment to work effectively, you need to keep a few essential rules in mind to protect your skin and increase the ice’s effectiveness.
Follow our simple guide below to learn which injuries to ice and how long you can safely ice them.
How Does Ice Help An Injury?
All right, let’s get into the nitty-gritty science behind why icing helps our injuries.
When we suffer an acute injury, our bodies send white blood cells and extra blood to the injured area to aid the complex healing process. We call this process inflammation, usually accompanied by tissue that feels hot to the touch, pain, swelling, and redness.
Our bodies are all too skilled at the inflammation process, and too much of a good thing, in this case, inflammation, can slow down healing and cause excess swelling, pain, and discomfort.
Ice is cold, which makes our blood vessels constrict in the injured area. This constriction, or narrowing, reduces inflammation, pushes along the healing process a little more quickly, and provides instant pain relief through reduced inflammation and the numbing sensation from the cold.
Does icing an injury speed up healing?
While there isn’t much medical data about speeding the healing process, it can provide users with plenty of pain relief.
Does ice reduce swelling?
Using ice for swelling is incredibly effective - it slows blood flow, helping the swelling subside more quickly.
Does ice help bruising?
Yes! Constricting the blood vessels with ice helps slow the leak of blood into the injured area, reducing bruising.
Which injuries require ice?
Some experts recommend ice for some injuries and heat for others. So, how do you know when to use ice?
Use ice on acute or immediate injuries like sprains and strains, tendinitis, or fractures. Beware when icing acute injuries, as you don’t want to reduce inflammation too much, which can hinder the healing process.
Many health professionals recommend heat on chronic and prolonged injuries, though some argue that ice is still helpful for any of those that involve an increased inflammation response. For osteoarthritis and chronic tendonitis, the body is still sending signals to repair the issue - ice can help calm that response.
Should you put ice on a burn?
Nope! Don’t ever put ice on a burn, as it can make the tissue damage worse.
How long should you ice any injury?
The best time to start icing an injury is immediately - if you’re unable to move, ask someone to run to the nearest freezer or first-aid kit for an ice pack.
The optimal icing time for most acute injuries is 20 minutes per icing session.
You can ice for less time, say 10 minutes, but leaving ice on for 20 minutes will likely be more effective at pain and inflammation relief. Icing for 20 minutes several times a day may often work as well as or better than oral pain medications or injections, as ice helps the inflammation to subside, so it’s helping you to heal faster and feel less pain while it offers instantaneous relief.
What happens if you leave an ice pack on too long?
If you leave ice on an injury for longer than 20 minutes, your body may jump into a process called reactive vasodilation, making your blood vessels widen to ensure your tissues get enough blood.
Leaving ice on for 20-minute sessions and waiting at least 30-40 minutes between sessions will counter the chances of reactive vasodilation.
Along with icing your injury for too long, icing a wound with no skin protection can be dangerous, also. Frostbite isn’t just a concern on a cold winter’s day - keeping ice on your skin for too long can cause the same dangerous cell death as ice-cold air.
To ensure you don’t burn your skin with the freezing-cold ice, follow the C.B.A.N. method: cold, burn, ache, and numb.
When you first apply ice, it will feel cold and will slightly burn after a few minutes. In a few more minutes, the burn turns to an ache and finally a numb feeling.
ALWAYS remove the ice when your skin becomes numb, even if you haven’t yet hit the 20-minute mark.
How many days should you ice an injury?
You can ice your injury as many days as you’d like if it provides relief, but the ice becomes much less effective after the first 48 hours - before this is prime icing time!
How to Properly Ice the Injury
- Get the ice on your injury ASAP, as the effects diminish 48-hours after injury.
- Wrap your ice cube or ice pack in a thin, clean towel and apply it directly to the injury. Elevate the injury above your heart as you ice to further promote inflammation reduction. Move the ice around often to prevent it from sitting in one spot on the skin.
- Keep the ice on your injury for no longer than 20 minutes at a time - remove the ice if your skin becomes numb before the session is up.
- Wait for 30-45 minutes minimum between icing sessions. For the first few days, apply ice three or more times each day with ample rest time.
Final Notes: Choosing the Right Ice
Now that you know the proper methods of icing an injury let’s talk about ice quality.
The best ice to use on an injury is clean ice made with filtered water that’s free of impurities. We love to use our ice ball maker because the rounded surface can fit most awkwardly shaped body parts, and the directional freezing leaves any extra particles under the cube, not in it.