The Best Way to Ice an Injury

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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The Best Way to Ice an Injury

Whether it’s a sore knee or a lower-back flare up, icing can be a key component to speeding up your recovery following an acute injury. But, to do it right, and keep from doing more harm than good, you’ll need to abide by a few simple rules.

Use this guide to learn how to ice an injury correctly so you can get back to running on the road in no time.


In general, ice is the treatment of choice for acute injuries that have occurred within the last 48 hours — particularly if there is noticeable swelling. Ice can also help relieve acute pain, minimize muscle spasms and decrease bleeding in surrounding tissues.

On the other hand, heat is a better option for chronic injuries. Additional warmth can increase blood flow while also relaxing surrounding tissue. While heat can be a good choice prior to exercise, remember it’s generally not recommended to use heat following an activity or for acute injuries when swelling is involved. Heat draws more blood to the area and can increase swelling and pain.

Also be aware you shouldn’t use heat or ice to treat an injury if you have poor circulation or decreased sensation to changes in temperature.


Even though ice can help reduce swelling and promote healing in acute injuries, you’ll still need to do it the right way to get the benefits.

Below are a few rules of icing to follow:

  • Never ice before a run or other workout. It can make your joints stiff and decrease blood flow to the area, making it more difficult to run with your normal stride.
  • Ice as soon as possible following your run. Get into the habit of icing immediately following your cool down and stretching routine for maximum benefit.
  • Only ice for 20–30 minutes. If you ice for longer, you can cause more damage to the tissue and skin. Once the area feels numb, it’s time to remove the ice pack.
  • Don’t ice more than every two hours. While it’s a good idea to continue icing an acute injury throughout the day, icing too much isn’t good. Try to ice 4–5 times per day and never sooner than two hours from your previous icing session.
  • Use a layer between your skin and the ice pack. If you have sensitive skin or if you commonly feel a burning sensation when applying an ice pack, use a thin layer like a pillowcase to protect your skin.
  • Try compression while you ice. When there’s swelling, compression and elevation of the joint can further reduce inflammation while you ice. Compressing the joint can also help the ice reach deeper into the tissue rather than remaining on the superficial layers of the skin. Wrap the ice around the injury with a compression wrap for additional benefit.



While regular old ice will do the trick, there are several other options for icing an injury that may be more comfortable or can work when your options are limited.

Here are a few alternative icing methods:

  • Frozen peas and corn. When you run out of ice, a bag of frozen peas and corn is an inexpensive, effective way to ice your injuries. You also won’t have to worry about wasting Ziplock bags or melt spillage.
  • Freezing paper cups. Fill a few paper cups with water and freeze them to make your own cryocup for ice massage. Massaging your injury with ice can also have added benefit, as it can penetrate muscle tissue faster than laying an ice bag on the skin.
  • Freeze water bottles. Roll your foot over a  frozen water bottle to help with plantar fasciitis.
  • Instant cold packs. Your local drug store will usually carry these, and they can be a good choice when you’re away from home since you won’t need your freezer to keep it cold.
  • Aircast cryocuff. With specific cuffs for the knee, ankle and shoulder, the cryocuff circulates ice water around the joint while also utilizing compression to reduce swelling.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for