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Ice for Pain Treatment: Using Ice to Treat Chronic Pain

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Updated June 13, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

How Using Ice for Pain Works:

When ice is applied to the skin, it has a few different effects on the surrounding tissues. First, it partially numbs the area, which can help temporarily reduce pain. Second, it causes blood vessels to tighten, which decreases the blood flowing into the area. In this way, ice can help decrease swelling and even slow or stop bleeding. In some cases, applying ice to the skin may even prevent some bruising.

When to Use Ice for Pain:

Ice can be beneficial for anyone who has a chronic pain condition that causes (or is caused by) inflammation. Some of the conditions we recommend ice for in our therapy clinic include:

How to Use Ice for Pain:

Ice is easy to use at home, because almost everyone already has it in their freezer. All you have to do is fill a freezer bag with ice, or even grab a pack of frozen peas (a therapist favorite: just be sure to mark the bag "do not eat!"), and apply it to the painful area. Some people prefer to use store-bought ice packs, which can be stored in the freezer and used over and over. You can even freeze a towel or washcloth by dipping it in water and placing it in the freezer. Sometimes in therapy clinics, we use ice for "massage": fill a small paper cup with water and freeze it, then tear off the bottom and rub the icy side directly over the painful area.

Common Concerns About Ice for Pain:

As an occupational therapist, I know that many people have a love/hate relationship with ice. It makes you feel cold, and it can often be uncomfortable. When I suggest a patient use ice for their pain, I often hear, "Can't I use heat instead?" However, most of my patients with inflammatory chronic pain conditions find, over time, that the benefits are worth any (temporary) discomfort.

Related article: Should I Use Heat or Ice for My Pain?

Sources:

Belanger, Alain-Yvan. "Evidence-Based Guide to Therapeutic Physical Agents" Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 2003

Gould, Harry J. "Understanding Pain: What it Is, Why it Happens and How It's Managed" New York: AAN Press 2007

New York Presbyterian. Ice Packs vs. Warm Compresses For Pain. Accessed 4/1/10. http://nyp.org/health/orthopaedics_heatcold.html

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