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Cold Therapy (Cryotherapy) for Pain Management

Closeup of hands wrapping ice pack in thin towel.

Cryotherapy literally means cold therapy. When you press a bag of frozen peas on a swollen ankle or knee, you are treating your pain with a modern (although basic) version of cryotherapy.

Cold therapy can be applied in various ways, including ice packs, coolant sprays, ice massage, and whirlpools, or ice baths. When used to treat injuries at home, cold therapy refers to cold therapy with ice or gel packs that are usually kept in the freezer until needed. These remain one of the simplest, time-tested remedies for managing pain and swelling.

Using cold therapy

Cold therapy is the "I" component of R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). This is a treatment recommended for the home care of many injuries, particularly ones caused by sports.

Cold therapy for pain relief may be used for:

  • Runner's knee

  • Tendonitis

  • Sprains

  • Arthritis pain

  • Pain and swelling after a hip or knee replacement

  • To treat pain or swelling under a cast or a splint

  • Lower back pain

The benefits of applying ice include:

  • It lowers your skin temperature.

  • It reduces the nerve activity.

  • It reduces pain and swelling. 

Experts believe that cold therapy can reduce swelling, which is tied to pain. It may also reduce sensitivity to pain. Cold therapy may be particularly effective when you are managing pain with swelling, especially around a joint or tendon.

How to apply cold therapy

Putting ice or frozen items directly on your skin can ease pain, but it also can damage your skin. It's best to wrap the cold object in a thin towel to protect your skin from the direct cold, especially if you are using gel packs from the freezer.

Apply the ice or gel pack for about 10 to 20 minutes several times a day. Check your skin often for sensation while using cold therapy. This will help make sure you aren't damaging the tissues. 

You might need to combine cold therapy with other approaches to pain management:

  • Rest. Take a break from activities that can make your pain worse.

  • Compression. Applying pressure to the area can help control swelling and pain. This also stabilizes the area so that you do not further injure yourself.

  • Elevation. Put your feet up, or elevate whatever body part is in pain.

  • Pain medicine. Over-the-counter products can help ease discomfort.

  • Rehabilitation exercises. Depending on where your injury is, you might want to try stretching and strengthening exercises that can support the area as recommended by your healthcare provider. 

Stop applying ice if you lose feeling on the skin where you are applying it. If cold therapy doesn't help your pain go away, contact your healthcare provider. Also, you may want to avoid cold therapy if you have certain medical conditions, like diabetes, that affect how well you can sense tissue damage. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Jimmy Moe MD
Online Medical Reviewer: John Hanrahan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2019
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