Using an ice pack after an injury is a common practice, but you can make missteps when applying ice. Doctors of chiropractic know that automatically applying an ice pack to a musculoskeletal injury may not be the best option for a fast, full recovery.
How Ice Helps With Common Injuries
The most common reason to use ice on an injury is to reduce pain and swelling to the injured soft tissues. For decades, the traditional first aid treatment for an injury used the acronym RICE – meaning rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Today, a better acronym to know for ankle sprains, tendonitis, back pain, bruises, and contusions of all sorts is POLICE, according to the article “Current Concepts in Sports Injury Rehabilitation” in the Journal of Orthopedics. POLICE stands for protection, optimum loading, ice, compression, and elevation.
Here’s a guide to help you remember these principles of injury recovery:
Protection is about taking steps to avoid further tissue damage. This could mean using crutches or a knee walker to protect an injured leg or knee when doing daily tasks. It could also represent getting the appropriate amount of rest to heal the injury.
Bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles all require some amount of loading power to stimulate healing. Optimum loading refers to starting gentle motions or specific exercises after a brief rest following an injury. To improve range of motion and strength, the level of activity recommended typically increases as healing progresses.
The key is to increase the movement slowly, following your doctor of chiropractic’s recommendations. Although you may need to push through some discomfort, stop if you experience any pain. Icing the affected area after these exercises can also help to reduce pain.
For some acute injuries, including sprains, applying ice treatments as soon as possible can significantly reduce swelling and pain. In other cases, reducing inflammation may hinder healing. When tissues are injured, vascular (blood) supply to the area may become limited, interfering with the inflammatory response. Icing in these situations would further prevent adequate vascular supply to the area.
Along with elevation, a doctor of chiropractic may recommend using a compression wrap on an injury to help reduce the swelling and pain in the injured joint. The tightness of the compression matters. If the compression is not tight enough, the swelling decrease will not last, and the pain level may not be reduced as much as it could have.
Elevating the site of the injury above the heart helps increase blood circulation. Note: It is important to elevate the area while you ice. Without the elevation, you’re simply reducing pain by numbing the area with ice, and the swelling won’t go away.
Icing Treatment Recommended? Avoid These Missteps
Sometimes, especially with sprains, applying ice as soon as possible after the injury is correct. On those occasions where icing an injury is recommended by your doctor of chiropractic or another healthcare professional, be sure to avoid these missteps.
1. Icing too long
Leaving ice on an injury for too long can cause more harm than good. Since ice constricts the blood vessels, it can reduce the blood flow to the injured area and slow down the healing process.
When icing is indicated, the ideal time to ice an injury is immediately after the trauma. The recommended time frame is about 10 minutes at a time with ice and waiting at least 20 minutes between icing treatments. It’s essential to allow the tissues to ‘warm up’ again before returning ice to the injury.
Ice should not be needed after the first 24 hours unless your doctor recommends it to reduce active swelling or relieve pain.
2. Applying ice to bare skin
Done incorrectly, placing ice on bare skin may cause frostbite and damage the skin’s delicate tissues. While exposure to cold can ease pain and swelling, ice packs can also stop blood flow if left on the skin too long. For this reason, use a barrier, such as a cloth towel, between your skin and a bag of frozen vegetables or cold pack.
3. Not resting
Icing by itself is not a cure-all. You should also rest the injured joint immediately after the injury occurs. It is recommended not to bear weight on an injured joint for the first 24 to 48 hours.
Continuing to play sports or being extremely active after an injury may prolong the healing process. Resist the temptation and check with your doctor of chiropractic or medical doctor regarding when you can return to sports or exercising.
4. Resting too much
Research suggests too much rest and not enough movement can hinder healing. A long period of immobilization can lead to decreased muscle strength and joint stiffness. It’s important to begin gentle motions to improve range of motion and strength after a short period of rest following an injury, gradually increasing the level of exercise.
The key is to increase the movement slowly. While you may need to push through some discomfort, stop if you experience any pain. Icing the affected area after these exercises can also help to reduce pain.
To Ice or Not to Ice
Remember this: your doctor of chiropractic is a specialist in the treatment and diagnosis of musculoskeletal conditions and diseases. Your chiropractor will always perform a comprehensive physical assessment before making any treatment recommendations.
CUKC Chiropractic Health Center
Cleveland University-Kansas City (CUKC), founded in 1922, is a private, nonprofit, chiropractic and health science-focused university in Overland Park, Kansas. The CUKC on-campus Chiropractic Health Center is open to the public and treats patients from Kansas City’s 15-county metro area. Our goal is to provide care and solutions for a better, more productive life for our patients.