Based on the current research, ice application, or “cryotherapy” over an injured body part may not help the injury heal any faster, but instead only provides temporary pain alleviation. Lessening pain can help one sleep or think clearly, and these are benefits of cryotherapy for sure. And while ice application slows down the swelling process, it might also slow down the natural healing process. Swelling is a natural physiologic component of healing, and trying to squelch it may have adverse consequences. In some cases, prolonged cryotherapy may be the blame for worse outcomes after an injury. Cryotherapy machines should be avoided. More research is needed on this topic, but my recommendation is to use ice for short periods early on after an acute injury when there is a lot of pain and swelling, and to consider not using ice at all for chronic pain conditions when there might be better self-help avenues, e.g. heat application, analgesic lotion application, massage, light exercises or application of kinesiologic tape or wraps/supports.
If you are going to use ice as a way to kill pain when apply it as follows:
- Use ice in a plastic bag, apply directly to the skin - no towels or other barriers - for no more than 30 minutes.
- Never use chemical packs, bags of peas, or cryotherapy machines.
- Resist the urge to take the bag off: it takes several minutes to get past the cold and pain feeling, but the body part will eventually feel numb from the ice.
- An alternative to 30 minutes of direct ice is to rub and massage the painful area with the ice bag. Only do this for few minutes at a time. You'll hate it, but it will enable you to shorten your ice time.
- Repeat ice sessions every two hours, or only a few times in a day if necessary.