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What Is Ice Therapy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Ice therapy limits damage at the time of an injury by reducing swelling and blood flow. Patients may be advised to start ice therapy as part of the first aid maxim Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE) for rapid injury recovery. It can also be used independently to help people address pain and discomfort after injuries. The sooner ice is applied, the more benefits it can offer. Waiting will allow inflammation to set in, and while the ice might dull the pain, it can’t prevent swelling and other issues.

In the wake of an injury, a number of biological processes occur very quickly. The area around the wound can start to fill with blood, making it hot and red. It also tends to swell, and leaking lymph can increase the swelling further. This can cause pain in addition to limiting the patient’s range of motion. It also prolongs healing time, as the inflammation needs to resolve so the injury can heal.

Rapidly starting ice therapy can arrest this process. Ice constricts the blood vessels, limiting the supply of blood and preventing swelling. In the case of an open wound, bleeding should slow as a result of the contracted blood vessels. Ice therapy can also suppress inflammation and the uncomfortable heat patients may experience, along with preventing muscle spasms.

Using ice off and on for several hours or days can cut pain signals to make the patient feel more comfortable. The sensation of cold from the ice therapy may override pain from the injury. It is important to rest and elevate the affected limb, because it could be prone to reinjury if the patient is not careful. Bracing may help stabilize joints like wrists and ankles to keep them in place while the muscles and tendons have a chance to heal.

Patients can use ice packs, bags of ice cubes, or frozen vegetables for ice therapy. Some find it helpful to massage the injured site gently with an ice cube or frozen block of ice. Moist towels should be placed between the ice pack and the injured site to conduct cold without freezing the skin with direct contact. If the injury is open, it needs to be cleaned before it can be iced. Persistent pain, soreness, and other issues may be a sign that the patient is developing an infection or needs more aggressive medical treatment for torn ligaments and other issues.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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