Ice Therapy

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At the UCLA Health Spine Center, our experts diagnose, manage and treat all spinal injuries and conditions. Call 310-319-3475 to connect with a spine specialist.

When to Apply Ice

The application of ice is common for the treatment of most medical conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system.

Ice, when applied correctly, can be of enormous benefit to reduce pain, inflammation, and swelling. Most physicians agree that for an acute injury, ice is the cornerstone of treatment, as well as rest, compression, and elevation of the affected body part.

Ice also can be dangerous.

For individuals with sensation loss, sensitive skin, ulcerated or broken skin, allergic reactions to ice, and hypersensitivity to ice, the application can be detrimental.

Ice should be used in short doses of time.

A cooling of the skin without formation of blisters or purplish skin tones should be the goal of all ice applications. The maximum amount of time for an application should be 20 minutes. Ice treatment can be repeated after re-warming of the skin, which on average takes 30 to 40 minutes.

For patients who are sensitive to ice, a paper towel or washcloth can be placed over the skin to protect the affected body part from direct contact. This method will take longer to cool the skin. If the towel is damp, the skin may cool faster. 

There are different methods of ice application

  1. The ice cup. Paper cups can be filled with water and placed in the freezer. When an ice massage is needed, place the cup in a towel, so that it does not freeze the hand, and rub the ice in a slow and circular motion over the painful area. This application should deliver the desired effects of ice treatment in 10 minutes.
  2. The slush ice bag. Using a zip-locked bag, or a bag that does not leak, place equal amounts of water and ice into it. With the aid of a towel, wrap the ice firmly over the affected area.

Ice therapy may be used 72 hours after an acute injury. This rule is not hard and fast. Ice may be used at any time AFTER a therapy session. It is usually not a good idea to apply ice prior to a work-out or before therapy, as the muscles can become tight and firm. There is a possibility of muscle injury; thus, most physicians recommend heat prior to exercise or therapy and ice after.