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by Sara Bresnick, PT

cold pack after injury

With summer approaching, many of us will be out enjoying the weather.  People find themselves hiking, biking, walking, and generally taking part in outdoor activity.  With increases in activity we usually see more injuries.  Along with these injuries, we physical therapists commonly answer questions regarding self-treatment after an injury and what role ice plays.

Ice plays a very important role within the first 48 hours of an acute injury.  It is important to ice as soon after the injury as possible to decrease swelling in the area.  Ice works to constrict blood vessels which helps to minimize swelling.  Since swelling causes pain and discomfort,  decreasing swelling will help to alleviate pain.  Additionally, ice works to numb an area which can help decrease pain following injury.

There are important guidelines to follow when applying ice.  First, make sure there is a layer between the cold pack and the skin (a paper towel or thin towel will work).  You do not want to cause tissue damage by applying an ice pack directly to the skin.  Ice pack application should be 15 min at a time.  You can apply ice approximately once every hour following injury.

There are two ways to apply ice.  While ice packs or other cold packs are good, you can also use massage the injured area with an ice cube.  Freezing water in a paper cup is handy for this task.  Ice cups will cool an area quickly and only need to be applied until the skin is red and numb (5-8 min).  I also tell people they can use a bag of frozen peas or a ziplock bag filled with ice and water.

In summary, it is best to ice immediately following injury to 48 hours after injury.  Of course, always have your injury checked out by a physical therapist or physician.  After 48 hours, you can think about switching over to heat or a combination of heat and ice, as long as swelling has resolved.

Sara Bresnick is a Physical Therapist at Boston Sports Medicine


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