Proper ice pack application for injuries

Originally Published: June 22, 2001 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: October 23, 2007
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Dear Alice,

Why is it necessary to remove an ice pack after 15 to 20 minutes, wait 15, then reapply, for treating sprains, for example? Why not just leave the ice pack on after your ankle or finger, etc., gets used to it?

Dear Reader,

Injuries are no fun, but too little or too much ice can leave the body's healing mechanisms out in the cold. Appropriately applying ice packs to injuries can, however, help the healing process in a few ways. First, the cold constricts blood vessels, which reduces blood flow to and swelling around the injury site. Ice also numbs the area, which reduces your pain and helps to prevent muscle spasms. Finally, lowering the temperature of the injured area slows the area's cellular processes, which can actually help to limit tissue damage.

Removing an ice pack after a brief cooling period is important because your skin is sensitive and doesn't get "used to" the cold from directly applied ice packs or bags. Believe it or not, you risk developing frostbite and, in severe cases, nerve and tissue damage when you leave your body exposed to extreme cold for long stretches of time. Also, when the skin cools below 59º Fahrenheit, the body tries to counteract the cold by opening blood vessels in the affected area to increase blood flow — this is exactly what you don't want if you're hoping for a speedy healing process!

So, next time you get a boo-boo, try an hour of icing: on for ten minutes, off for ten; on for another ten minutes, off for another ten. You can repeat this cycle several times during the day to maximize the benefits of ice without risking further tissue damage. Whether you're using a bag of frozen veggies, an ice pack, or plain ol' ice in a plastic bag, make sure to wrap a thin towel or elastic bandage around either the ice or the injured area to protect your skin.

It's always a good idea to consult with your health care provider or an athletic trainer following an injury; these professionals will be able to assess the nature of your injury and will make sure you are on the right path towards full rehabilitation and recovery.

Alice