You never know when you might twist an ankle, stub your toe, or catch your finger in the car door on your way to the office. Accidents happen, but being prepared is half the battle.
Icing should be your first step when you hurt yourself. Getting cold on the injury as quickly as possible can go a long way toward helping it heal faster.
But do you know how to correctly ice an injury? There are definite right and wrong actions when applying cold therapy.
We’ll be discussing it in this article so you’ll know what to do next time you bump, bruise, or hurt yourself!
Why Should You Ice an Injury?
When you sprain a joint, pull a muscle, or suffer a fracture, your body releases prostaglandins at the injury site.
This sends signals to your brain, which triggers the healing process in your body as blood flow to the area is increased. The increased blood is rich with white blood cells, which repair the damage and cause pain, inflammation, and swelling.
By applying ice to the injured area, the blood vessels narrow—vasoconstriction—which helps reduce how much blood reaches the affected area. This helps numb the affected area, alleviating pain and keeping the swelling down.
When Should You Ice An Injury?
You can ice your injury along with your doctor’s recommendations when you have overuse injuries—like tendinitis—sprains, fractures, or strained muscles.
Ice can also help decrease the size of a bruise, as it slows down the blood flow, reducing how much blood leaks out of your vessels.
However, it’s important to know that you shouldn’t ice open wounds, as there’s a chance of introducing infection and damaging fragile tissue.
How to Apply Ice to an Injury
1. Get the Ice on Quickly
Try to apply ice to the injured area as soon as possible after the injury has happened. However, it’s not always easy to do this.
As you go about your day-to-day activities, ice or ice packs may not be readily available, depending on where you are.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep some Instant Cold Packs in your desk drawer, gym bag, purse, or glove compartment. This will allow you to apply cold therapy immediately when you need it.
2. Keep It Local
When applying ice to injuries, make sure to keep it localized to the area of pain and inflammation.
For example, if you have hurt your hip joint, apply ice directly to the joint or the area of pain rather than sitting in an ice bath.
Applying ice to uninjured parts of the body is unnecessary, as there’s no need to restrict blood flow to anywhere other than the injury site at that point in time.
Rather focus all the cold on the particular point of the injury, which will provide the best results and speed up healing.
3. Prevent Frostbite
When applying ice or ice packs to the injured area, make sure to wrap the ice or ice pack in a towel or dishcloth.
Placing ice directly onto the skin can cause “ice burn,” which damages the skin and can leave you in pain.
You can also give yourself an ice massage by moving the ice around the injury site.
This prevents the ice from sitting in one spot and acts as a protective barrier between your skin and the ice so that you don’t develop an ice burn or frostbite.
4. Elevate Your Leg
It’s important to keep your injured body part elevated above your heart while you ice. This will help fluid drain away from the affected body part, reducing swelling and alleviating pain.
You want to keep the ice pack on the injured body part for 15 to 20 minutes. It’s important to note that once your injury feels numb, it’s time to remove the ice.
If you had to leave the ice pack on for any longer, it could cause the blood vessels to open wider—vasodilation—which would undo any good done.
Applying the ice for too long will also mean that you need to wait longer between your icing sessions to ensure that they’re effective.
You can apply ice every three to four hours throughout the day for as long as the area is warm to the touch and has a normal sensation.
Make sure to leave at least 45 minutes to an hour in between each session, as this will allow the tissues to ‘warm up’ again and reduce inflammation.
Rules of Icing
Never Ice Before a Run or Other Workout
If you apply ice to any part of your body before an activity, you’ll be blocking vital nerve signals to the brain.
Your body won’t be able to warm up effectively before the activity, leaving you with stiff joints and muscles and decreased strength. This just leaves you open to injuring yourself all over again.
Icing before exercise could also delay your body’s reaction time, causing you to inadvertently cause more damage as you may not be able to feel if or when you’ve injured yourself.
Try Compression While You Ice
Wrap the injured area with an ACE wrap or a compression accessory to apply compression and support.
Then elevate the body part while you apply ice to the affected area. The combination of compression and ice can help to reduce the swelling and promote healing.
What Can You Use to Ice an Injury?
Sometimes you don’t have ice at the ready, or your ice packs aren’t quite the right thing for the painful area. Here are some alternatives you can use to ice an injury.
1. Frozen Foods
If you don’t have any gel or ice packs, a bag of frozen peas, mixed vegetables, or corn is a great option if you need to ice an injury quickly.
Bags of smaller items like peas and corn are a bit more moldable and will be able to conform to the knee or ankle joint, for example.
You may need bags that are a little bigger if you need to ice larger areas, like your hip or shoulders. Make sure that you wrap the bag in a towel before applying it to the painful area.
Also, remember that if it defrosts completely while you’re using it, you should not freeze it again. However, the food can still be cooked, so you should use it for dinner that night!
2. Traditional Ice Bag
You can use a resealable Zip-Loc bag and fill it with either ice cubes or crushed ice.
Crushed ice will make the bag more pliable, which will help it to conform better to the body part that you’re icing.
If you’re using ice cubes, you can add some water to the bag, as this will help it mold to your body.
3. Commercial Icing Products
There’s a variety of reusable cold packs and cold therapy systems that you can use to help ice your injury.
Some products are specifically designed to accommodate body parts like shoulders, hips, knees, or ankles. Others will wrap around a body part and may have different sized gel-packs to accommodate various parts of your body.
Some of these are paired with compression gear, incorporating compression and cold into one system for easy use.
4. Frozen Water Bottle
A frozen water bottle can be a great option for a less malleable ice pack to ice parts of your body like your feet, shins, hands, or forearms.
Depending on the size of the water bottle that you use, it could retain its coolness for much longer, unlike some other options that could thaw out quickly.
5. Sock With Rice
If you need an ice pack that’s more malleable that can easily curve around a joint, but you don’t have a gel pack, then fill a sock with rice!
You can choose if you want to fill it halfway or three-quarters of the way. Tie the end in a knot and put it in the freezer for about two hours.
The rice will remain cold and conform to your joint without melting! The other benefit is that it can be used as a heat treatment as well.