How Long to Ice an Injury

Man holding an ice pack on his head

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Using an ice pack on a sports injury is a common practice. Knowing when and how long to ice the injured area is important for determining how safe and beneficial this remedy will be. This is because ice isn't always the best treatment option.

Plus, many people make mistakes when using this cold treatment method. We'll go over a few of these mistakes, but first, what are some reasons you may want to consider using ice?

Reasons to Ice an Injury

The most common reason to use ice on a sports injury is to reduce pain and swelling to the injured soft tissues. For decades, the traditional first aid treatment for an injury was the acronym R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, and elevation).

The protocol has since been updated to P.O.L.I.C.E. (protection, optimum loading, ice, compression, elevation) for ankle sprains, tendonitis, back pain, bruises, and contusions of all sorts.

While ice has been shown to greatly reduce swelling and pain immediately after an acute injury, in some cases, reducing inflammation may actually hinder healing, so it's important to use ice the right way.

How Long to Ice an Injury

Ice packs should be applied to the injured area as soon as possible. They should then be reapplied three or more times per day for the first few days, for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. To keep the ice from doing damage to the skin, place a towel around it.

Although ice can be helpful, it's always beneficial to consult with your doctor when injured. Follow their medical advice for treating your specific injury, allowing for the best and fastest recovery possible.

Do You Have to Ice an Injury?

This treatment strategy is mainly used to help reduce the pain and swelling that occurs with some injuries. However, icing an injury isn't not always the best choice because, in some cases, using ice can delay injury healing.

Talking to your doctor can help determine whether ice is appropriate and can be used to enhance the healing process. Ice is generally most effective when the injury is acute or happened in the recent past.

If the injury is longer term (more than six weeks old) or more chronic in nature, heat might work better instead.

When to Use Ice
  • Sprains

  • Strains

  • Fractures

  • Tendinitis

When to Use Heat
  • Chronic or reoccurring injuries

  • Old injuries

  • Stiff joints

  • Arthritis

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Here are common mistakes people make when icing an injury.

Icing 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 10 minutes at a time (waiting another 10 minutes at least between applications). It's important to allow the tissues to 'warm up' again before returning ice to 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.

Applying Ice 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, always use a barrier, such as a cloth towel, between your skin and a bag of frozen vegetables or a cold pack.

If the injury is in an area with little fat or muscle beneath the skin, such as fingers, take the compress off after 5 to 10 minutes maximum, wait 10 minutes, and reapply.

Other Strategies That Might Help

There are a few additional things you can along with icing an injured area. Here are some options to consider.

Rest

Icing alone is not a cure-all and therefore, even if you follow the recommendations for safe icing of an injury, you must also rest the injured joint immediately after the injury occurs. It is recommended to not bear weight on an injured joint for the first 24 to 48 hours.

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.

Gentle Movements

While R.I.C.E. was the standard treatment for acute injuries for years, research suggests too much rest and not enough movement can hinder healing. A long period of immobilization can lead to decreased muscle strength and joint stiffness.

The new recommendation for injury care is P.O.L.I.C.E.:

  • Protection
  • Optimum Loading
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation

Optimum loading refers to starting gentle motions after a short period of rest following an injury and gradually progressing the level of exercise to improve range of motion and strength. Bone, tendon, ligament, and muscle all require some degree of loading to stimulate healing. 

The key is to increase the movement slowly. While you may need to push through some discomfort, stop if you experience any pain. Icing the affected area after these exercises can help to reduce pain.

Elevation

Reducing swelling is an important part of the healing process, and this requires elevating the injury above the heart to increase blood circulation.

It is important to elevate the area while you ice. Otherwise, you're simply reducing pain by numbing the area with ice, but the swelling won't go away without elevation.

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 the swelling decrease will not last, and the pain level may not go down as well as it would have if compression had been properly applied.

When to See Your Doctor

Every injury is different and sometimes you can't tell the extent of the injury without further testing. Therefore, it's always advised to consult with your doctor to determine the best way to treat your injury based on its type and level of severity.

A doctor should be consulted immediately if:

  • The pain or swelling does not go away with home treatment, or gets worse
  • You become unable to move the injured area
  • The injured area has a visible deformity
  • If the pain is accompanied by numbness or weakness
  • The pain disrupts daily activities or makes it hard to sleep
  • A concussion is possible or suspected

A Word From Verywell

Not all injuries are the same. While many can be treated at home with the help of ice, some do require additional treatment. The specific approach used should be tailored to the type of injury you have, as well as your doctor's recommendations.

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