When you sprain your ankle or have a similar injury, tissue is stretched and torn, and it swells. Swelling interferes with healing, so anything that will prevent or reduce swelling should help you recover from a minor injury more quickly.
The quicker you care for swelling after an injury the better, and the best approach includes applying cold to the injured area right away. Cold shrinks the blood vessels, which reduces bleeding in the area and helps to prevent swelling. It also helps prevent the muscles from going into spasm and relieves pain.
The use of cold as a treatment is one of the oldest first aid procedures. When you apply cold, the skin will initially feel cold, often followed by relief of pain from the injury. As icing progresses, you will feel a burning sensation, then pain in the skin and finally numbness.
Avoid skin damage by stopping when the skin begins to feel numb. Applying too much cold for too long can cause frostbite or even nerve damage. Also, cold treatment is not for everyone.
The length of time cold is applied will vary depending on the method and location of the injury. Areas with little body fat (such as the knee, ankle and elbow) do not tolerate cold as well as fatty areas (such as the thigh and buttocks). So, for bonier areas, keep to the low end of the recommended application time.
For best results, apply cold at regular intervals throughout the waking hours of the day, allowing a few hours between treatments. Time off will keep cooling effects from accumulating and will allow the skin to return to normal temperatures. An ice bag is the best choice for most people.
Ice bags are the old standby for applying deep, penetrating cold. Fill a bag made of thick plastic or rubber with ice and apply it to the skin. The cooling effect of ice bags lasts long and is more effective than some of the superficial methods such as ice massage. If you use a regular plastic food bag, place a damp, thin towel (such as a dish towel) between the bag and your skin. You could use a bag of frozen peas or corn. Apply for 10 to 30 minutes depending on the body part and comfort.
Chemical cold bags stay at room temperature until squeezing the bag and mixing the chemicals produces cold. They work well in the wilderness or when ice is not available. Because the temperature is not that low, a 30-minute application should be used, and the bag can be applied directly to the skin.
Immersion entails placing the foot, hand or elbow in icy water filled with crushed ice or ice cubes. Body parts besides the foot, hand and elbow do not lend themselves to immersion because too much of the uninjured area is exposed to the cold. Ten to 20 minutes is the suggested length of time for immersion.
Ice massage involves rubbing ice on the skin with a circular motion. It is easy to apply and focuses the cold on the injured area. A useful approach is to fill a paper or foam cup with water and freeze it until needed. Then peel away the top to reveal the ice and hold the bottom of the cup to apply. Ice cubes or chunks can also be used. The cold does not penetrate as deeply nor last as long as other methods. When applying to bony areas such as the ankle, apply for only seven to 10 minutes. Double the time when applying to fatty areas such as the thigh or buttocks.
Whichever method is used, remember to ice early, ice often, but not too often in order to avoid harmful effects like frostbite. Let the skin recover between cold applications.