Cryotherapy (Cold Therapy) for Pain Management

Cryotherapy literally means cold therapy. The pain-relieving benefits of snow and ice were first written about by the Greek physician Hippocrates thousands of years ago. 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.

Cryotherapy can be applied in various ways, including icepacks, coolant sprays, ice massage, and whirlpools, or ice baths. When used to treat injuries at home, cryotherapy 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 cryotherapy

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

Cryotherapy 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

Studies have shown the benefits of applying ice:

  • It lowers your skin temperature.

  • It reduces the nerve activity.

  • It reduces pain and swelling. 

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

Teen girl holding ice pack to shin

How to apply cold therapy

Putting ice or frozen items directly on your skin could ease pain, but it also can damage your skin. It's best to wrap the cold object in a 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 brief periods – about 10 to 20 minutes – several times a day. Check your skin frequently for sensation while using cryotherapy. This will help make sure you aren't damaging the tissues. 

You might need to combine cryotherapy 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 whatever body part is in pain.

  • Pain medication. 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.

Stop applying ice if you lose feeling in the skin where you are applying it. If cryotherapy does not help your pain go away, contact your doctor. Also, you may want to avoid cryotherapy if you have certain medical conditions like diabetes that affect how well you can sense tissue damage.