A sprain or strain can be incredibly painful, but we often don’t have many treatment options. The healing power of time combined with physical therapy is often our best option. But how do we care for a sprain while we heal? The time-tested RICE protocol (Rest Ice Compression Elevation) is usually our best bet. But icing for too long can cause problems. Here are some tips for safely icing your injury for pain. These apply to ankle sprains, other joint injuries, and back pain.
What Are The Benefits of Icing an Injury?
Rest, compression, and elevation help reduce inflammation and discomfort, but icing does the most to relieve pain. When you have an injury, your body sends blood to the injured area to promote healing. But that extra blood also brings pain and swelling. Icing causes your blood vessels to contract, relieving inflammation. It also causes numbing, so you don’t feel the pain. Icing is a temporary pain relief strategy and doesn’t speed up healing. However, it can reduce reliance on over-the-counter pain relief medications like ibuprofen. Icing is effective for acute injuries like a sprain or strain. You can also use ice for overuse injuries or chronic conditions like arthritis. Talk with your orthopaedist before adding icing to your treatment protocol for a chronic condition.
How Frequently Should I Ice My Injury?
You can start with icing every hour for 10 minutes. After three days, reduce to three or four times a day. Use common sense and the CBAN (Cold Burning Achy Numb) principle to determine how much cold therapy your body will tolerate. When you feel numbness, remove the ice. You don’t want to cause frostbite or tissue damage. Move the ice pack around the affected area instead of leaving it in one place.
What Type of Ice Pack Should I Use?
High-tech commercial ice packs can be more comfortable and convenient. However, a simple homemade pack using ice and a zip closure bag can do the trick, especially if you don’t have other icing options available. Cover the bag with a thin towel or cloth to prevent the ice from touching the skin. Other options include:
- Frozen peas or corn. Your mom’s old standby is inexpensive and molds to the skin better than ice cubes.
- Gel packs and wraps. Reusable gel packs with velcro wraps are convenient and make icing easy.
- Cryo-sleeves combine cold and compression therapy. They’re designed to fit different joints and avoid hurting skin or muscles. Cryo-sleeves are made from a unique material to provide cold therapy after being stored in the freezer. You can leave them on for 15 to 20 minutes without skin damage.
In a nutshell, gel packs and sleeves are more comfortable but more expensive. If you don’t have one on hand, the DIY version does the job.
When Should I See A Doctor for A Sprained Ankle?
Sprains often heal independently, and icing for the first few days can make you more comfortable. However, see your orthopaedist if the pain doesn’t go away. You want to ensure you don’t have a fracture or a torn ligament. Here are some signs it’s time to see a doctor:
- You have severe pain or swelling.
- Your pain or swelling gets worse over time.
- You have pain when putting weight on your foot after a few days.
- Your foot becomes pale or discolored.
- You feel a prickling sensation in your foot.
Call your orthopaedist if you try the RICE protocol for 48 to 72 hours and still have pain. At Countryside Orthopaedics & Physical Therapy, we can diagnose and effectively treat a severe sprain. A robust physical therapy program is often your best bet. PT offers a range of non-invasive techniques to regain strength and relieve pain without medications. Our in-house physical therapy team uses strength and range of motion exercises, hot and cold therapy, ultrasound therapy, electrotherapy, hands-on manipulation, and other techniques. When it comes to pain relief, ice is nice. But if you need a long-term solution, let’s take the next step with a supervised PT program.