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Ice – Why and How

Ice; why and how!

For every fall, scrape, or accidental run-in with an inanimate object (walls, furniture, curbs, etc.), there is a frozen bag of peas for that. It is the oldest trick in the book! Using ice to alleviate pain is a method that’s been around for ages. It’s something everyone can identify with. But why and how does it work?

When you bruise or hurt yourself, that area of the body goes into overdrive trying to fix itself. Soon blood and other fluids will rush to the injury site.  This fluid influx is an important part of the healing process, but it can cause quite a bit of pain.  Using ice may help because when the cold contacts the skin, it transmits a sensory input that reroutes (and essentially blocks) the path pain neurons take en route to the brain (much like the effect rubbing has on a painful area). Ice also causes blood vessels to constrict which decreases blood flow to the area. By decreasing the blood flow, you minimize swelling and inflammation.  Adding ice makes the injured tissue go into a very short-lived hibernation, which will slow down cell damage and decrease spasms.  However, be very careful not to over-ice an injury.  Over-icing can cause tissue damage.

When should you use ice?

It is best to apply these measures to the injured area within 5-10 minutes of sustaining the injury. Within about 48 hours, the bleeding should have stopped and the inflammation should be reduced.  At this point, you want to allow the body to start to heal itself.

If you are icing due to pain associated with plantar fasciitis, you should ice the area twice a day.  It is recommended that you don’t ice first thing in the morning, but you wait to apply it until your feet have a chance to wake up and warm up.   Your discomfort may be worst at the end of the day, therefore that might be a good time to use the ice for it’s anti-inflammatory and numbing properties.

There are several different ways to ice your feet:

  1. At-Home ice pack:  A quick and easy method, all you need is a towel or a plastic bag.  Fill it with ice; cubes or crushed.  Hold it on the painful area of your foot.  This is very efficient and convenient, and also very inexpensive.  But be aware of leaks that could create a watery mess.
  2. Ice Therapy Slippers:  These are incredibly easy to use and very effective for heel pain.  The slippers are shaped like the bottom of your feet for solid contact.  Make sure that you store them in the freezer so they are ready to go whenever you need them.
  3. Store-Bought Ice Packs: There are several different types of ice packs available at the store. Gel packs may cost more than home-made, however, they typically don’t get as cold, therefore won’t damage your skin, but also might not cool as effectively.  They are pliable and they will contour well to your foot.  A bonus is that they are reusable.
  4. Paper Cups – These are a great way to use ice as a massager. Fill disposable cups with water and freeze them.  When you need to ice your foot, you can peel away the cup.  You will be left with a cylinder that fits right into the arch of your foot.  You may also take advantage of its round shape and move it in a circular pattern for a rolling massage.   A disadvantage of this method is that you need to plan ahead of time to freeze the water so it will be ready when needed.
  5. Water Bottle – Use a single-serve water bottle, fill it with water, and freeze. This method works very well for stretching your plantar fascia by rolling it along the bottom of your foot.
  6. Bag of Frozen Vegetables – as we stated earlier, a bag of frozen peas or corn makes for a great ice pack. The cheaper the better!  The vegetable bag is water-proof and also pliable to your foot.  Caution: make sure that you label the bag properly, you can reuse it as an ice pack, but do not consume the vegetables.
  7. Immersion – You may use this method if you want to completely submerge your foot or ankle in the cold. Place ice and water in a container large enough to hold your foot.  Soak in the cold for 5-15 minutes.  You may also move your foot around and do some exercises too.  If it is too cold, pause and take a rest.

How long to ice?

Typically, you want to ice the area for 10-20 minutes.  If you do it for less than 10 minutes, numbness may set in, but you won’t reduce much of the inflammation.  And if you ice for more than 20 minutes, it may become counterproductive by increasing blood flow to the area and make the inflammation worse.

Take Caution

Be careful not to use ice on areas of your skin that are not in good health, areas that are experiencing poor circulation, or areas that have a decreased sensation to cold.  You should never apply ice directly to your skin, this can cause frostbite.  Always have some sort of barrier between your skin and the ice.  If you are icing and you begin to feel a pins and needles sensation, you should stop.  Pay extra caution if you have diabetes; in this instance, icing is not recommended.

You should always allow at least an hour between icing sessions.  After you ice, the feeling should come back to the area within 45 minutes.  If your skin doesn’t warm-up, or if you don’t regain feeling, you should contact your doctor.

If you have any circulatory issues at all, consult with your doctor before instituting an ice protocol.

Icing is temporary

Icing an injury is not the same thing as healing it.  If your pain does not go away, or increases, please do not hesitate to contact our office for professional help.  We have 5 doctors here to help you live pain-free!

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