Ice Therapy

After an injury: It is Monday morning. You are rushing around the house, attempting to leave for work. Yesterday you forgot to move the garden hose from the front walk. You trip on it. You fall. Your wrist feels sprained. Until you can reach your chiropractor, what should you do?

So often, individuals sprain their back, wrist or neck. They wonder whether a heating pad or an ice pack is the better home remedy to apply before or between treatments.

When in doubt, ice or “cryotherapy” is safest to apply after an injury. A new injury is “acute” when it is within 24 to 48 hours after the misfortunate incident. For trauma to muscle, bones, ligaments, or even headaches, ice can often decrease the pain.

Along with pain relief, icing an injury ultimately can lead to decreased swelling, inflammation and muscle spasm. During the course of treatment for bursitis or tendonitis, ice application can allow further motion of a joint. Some stiffness of the joint may then be prevented. Studies have shown that ankle sprains heal much quicker with the use of ice.

How does ice work? In response to cold, blood flow is restricted since the blood vessels close down or constrict.  In turn, some of the swelling and inflammation can be prevented. Ice also helps to block the pain message traveling from the nerves to the brain.

During the first 15 minutes of ice application, discomfort from the closing down of the blood vessels, may tempt the patient to remove the ice pack. Leave the ice on! After this stage as a reflex, the blood vessels temporarily open up and blood rushes back into the area.  Return of blood supply to the skin is responsible for the red color after the use of ice.

When you ice an injury, you will experience 5 stages. First, you feel the cold, then burning, then aching, then pain as described above. Keep the ice on if you can! The last stage is the pain relief stage. So, in order to get full effects, the ice needs to be applied for at least 15 minutes.

Cold can be applied to a muscle or joint. A paper towel or thin towel should be placed between the ice pack or bag, and your skin. The usual recommendation is to leave ice on for 20 to 30 minutes with one hour between applications.  Every household should keep a re-freezable ice pack in the freezer. A plastic bag with ice will also serve the purpose.

For the emergency kit, chemical ‘ice bags’ can be squeezed to activate chemicals that create a cold sensation.

Ice provides very safe pain relief typically without the side effects of medication. But, several precautions need to be considered. Because cooling an injury allows you to have more joint motion without pain, you may have a tendency to re-injure the area. Certain individuals are overly sensitive to cold. Ice is not the best treatment for these cases. Individuals with diabetes, Systemic Lupus (SLE), Rheumatoid Arthritis, or Raynaud’s Disease are probably not candidates for ice therapy. Stop using ice if you develop bumps called “urticaria.” A dramatic drop in blood pressure, increase in pulse or fainting is definite signal to avoid cold therapy. When in doubt, ask your family doctor.

Ice is usually your best first aid tool. The next step is for you to seek the appropriate health care. Keeping swelling, pain and inflammation to a minimum will help your chiropractor to evaluate your injury and recommend the next course of treatment.