The Truth About Cooling the Pain


“Get some ice!” This common phrase can be heard in many households, schools, and athletic functions, particularly when someone falls and injures themselves. Falling and hurting yourself or experiencing an unexpected ache, like low back pain, is common. Depending on the magnitude of your strain or injury, however, the answer to relief may be found in a simple ice pack. This treatment commonly known as cold therapy.
The application of ice to an injured body part (also called ice therapy) has been a  savior to some for centuries, and in many cases thought of as a temporary home cure for common aches and pains. Sometimes the source of bodily pain is inflammation, and cold therapy can play an important role in reducing inflammation.

Whether you experience an injury from a fall or strain from continuous and repeated use of a specific limb, acting quickly by applying a cold compress may help decrease the chance of prolonged discomfort.

cold therapy

While cold therapy can help alleviate swelling and numb pain signals being sent to the brain, it is only in a temporary capacity. After holding a cold compress to the swollen or sore area, it is recommended to either look for longer-term pain relief avenues and/or seek the advice of a medical professional.

Understanding cold therapy and how to use ice packs and cold compresses can go a long way in helping you get the most benefit from them.

Types of Cold Compresses (Cold Therapy):

  • Homemade ice pack: Growing up, you may have witnessed a fall or have taken one yourself. The common thing many people do is run to the kitchen for a makeshift ice pack. This is done by wrapping ice cubes inside of a cloth or paper towel or grabbing a bag or frozen vegetables out of the freezer. These packs may have been used until the ice melted or until the pain subsided. They tend to get messy but are greatly convenient for those who do not have a real ice pack or first aid kit.
  • Topical cooling aids: Although the style of this cooling mechanism isn’t necessarily a “compress”, topical aids can help in relieving pain on your legs, feet, and other sore muscles and joints if they are feeling tired or heavy. Walkers, runners, as well as older adults may rely on this type of product to help reduce pain. Topical cooling aids may include gels, creams, rubs, salves, lotions, sprays, and roll-ons that include ingredients which give off cooling sensations on your skin and diminish your sense of pain.

  • Ice packs/Cold compress: While you might hear “ice pack” and think about the blue brick you pack in a lunch box, there are actually therapeutic ice packs manufactured which are designed to fit certain areas of your body. You can find these products at pharmacies, grocery stores, big box stores, and online. Applying them to your legs, back, and even your neck allows you to go on about your day without the hassle of holding them up yourself.  Click here for a list of best ice packs for your neck.

    Some Precaution:

    Cold compresses are essentially ice packs that are more malleable and can be molded better to your body. Disposable ice packs are another alternative; they are packs which turn cold due to a chemical reaction that occurs when they are cracked or shaken.

    When using cold therapy to treat a swollen limb or sore muscle, you always want to make sure there is a barrier (like cloth) between your skin and the ice pack or compress to prevent ice burn. It is also recommended to only ice and injury for 10-20 minutes at a time, repeated up to 4 or 5 times per day.

What Ice and Cold Compresses CANNOT do:

  • Heal an injury: Ice packs are mostly used to reduce the pain caused by swelling. The cold sensation can actually numb your spasming nerve endings and restrict blood flow to the damaged area to reduce inflammation. This temporary relief, however, does not cure the underlying injury. 
  • Takes the place of medical attention: While cold therapy can address acute inflammation in the short-term, for persistent swelling or any injury which is accompanied by fever, redness, tenderness, or bleeding, you should always seek medical attention. Prescribed medicines are able to eliminate inflammation along with treating the source of the pain. Ice therapies are not a cure for bruised tissues as further evaluation may be needed to ensure there aren’t more serious matters that have resulted from an injury.

In addition to icing mild to moderate injuries like ankle sprains or low back strains, experts recommend rest to avoid exacerbating the injured area, compression to help reduce inflammation, as well as elevating the injured area if possible (i.e. propping your leg up on a pillow).

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