This article was updated and republished on Feb 23, 2022.
A cold compress can be something as simple as a frozen or chilled material – like an ice pack or wet washcloth – that you can apply to sore muscles and achy parts of your body to help your body naturally heal. When they are used correctly and effectively, cold compresses can positively impact pain, swelling, allergies or even a fever.
If you are curious about cold compression therapy: is it better and why? Continue reading to find out!
The basic truth is that different types of cold compresses are recommended for different types of pain. For example, a simple bag of ice might be recommended if you accidentally twisted your ankle. A cool washcloth might be recommended if you are experiencing painful eye allergies. And, for something more serious like a major knee injury or surgery, an at-home cold therapy machine or regular visits to a cryotherapy clinic can expedite the recovery process.
No matter what form the cold compress takes, the reason why they are so beneficial is pretty much the same across the board. Basically, pain occurs in the body when there is inflammation. While inflammation is the body’s natural way to try to protect a part of the body that it sees as at-risk for injury or infection, inflammation can also delay actual healing.
So, cold compresses are able to expedite healing and pain by reducing inflammation. If you are interested in creating a cold compress at home, here are some easy steps.
How to get a cold compress
There are some cold compresses you can get at your local pharmacy. There are also some fantastic companies that offer specialized cold compresses and cold therapy units for people who are recovering from major surgery. With that being said, if you are simply looking for something quick and easy, you can make your very own cold compress with a few simple steps:
- Find a clean, sealable bag
- Fill the bag with ice or frozen fruit and vegetables
- Wrap the bag in a thin cloth to protect the skin
- Apply the bag to your injury
If you are looking for something that is a bit less messy, consider using reusable ice cubes. If you're looking for a more DIY option, you can also use a washcloth to create a similar cold compress. To do that, simply:
- Dampen a clean washcloth
- Wring out extra moisture
- Seal the cloth in a sealable bag
- Freeze the bag and washcloth until it is stiff or frozen solid
- Wrap the bag in a light cloth and apply to the injury
As is the case with all injuries that you are trying to help heal with a cold compress, it is also heavily encouraged to practice the R.I.C.E. method. This is an acronym to help people remember what they should do to help heal an ankle, foot, knee and lower leg.
- Rest and protect the injured area
- Ice the injured area to reduce swelling
- Compress or wrap the injured area
- Elevate the injured area to encourage blood flow and reduce swelling
For major injuries and recovery, you should consider opting into regular cryotherapy at home or a clinic. As far as your at at home options, you should consider these popular units and the related pads for your specific body region in pain:
- Breg Polar Care Wave Cold Therapy System
- Breg Polar Care Cube Cold Therapy Unit
- Breg Polar Care Kodiak Cooler
- Aircast Cryo Cuff IC Cooler
- DonJoy Iceman Clear 3 Universal Cold Therapy Machine
Top benefits of a cold compress
Now that you have a great understanding of how to make a cold compress for yourself at home, you are probably interested in learning about the many benefits. Overall, applying ice to an injury restricts blood flow to the area, this can result in:
- Slowing or stopped bleeding
- Reduced swelling and inflammation
- Preventing or limiting bruising
- Providing some pain relief
The four major reasons people use cold compress and why:
1. To recover from surgery
After someone undergoes surgery, it is quite common for doctors to prescribe the use of cold compress. As you may have a guess, the reason why is because it can help reduce post-op swelling and can help patients achieve the normal function of the part of the body that was operated on after soft tissue trauma.
Consider this information for an NIH study about cold compresses.
“Findings from randomized controlled trials of knee arthroplasty generally showed cold compression therapy provides better outcomes such as pain relief than alternative interventions,” the study found. “While the effects of cold and static compression are clearly better than no treatment, they do not appear to be directly additive.”
2. Sooth injured muscles, joints and tissues
Even if you are recovering from an injury that did not require surgery, a cold compress can be very helpful to you. Cold therapy can provide very effective relief for minor injuries such as sprains, bruises and other tweaks. The therapy can also increase the healing time. In fact, cold compresses are known to reduce the recovery time for tendonitis, carpal tunnel, strains and more by several days!
3. Rehab after the gym
If you love to go hard in the gym and push your muscles to their absolute limits, you are probably quite familiar with the major pain that can come on as a result. In fact, if you work your muscles too hard, you may actually find that you have to take a few days off from the gym to recover fully. That can have a serious impact on your ability to build muscle over time. For that reason, using a cold compress on muscles after the gym is a heavily common thing to do. There is a reason why you’ll see MLB pitchers with massive ice packs wrapped around their pitching shoulder after they go seven innings. The same idea can be applied to your awesome workouts at the gym.
4. General pain relief
Even if you do not really know what is going on with your body, if you are feeling some general sense of pain in a muscle or tendon, there is no reason why you should not apply some ice and see if it helps. One great benefit of using a cold compress is that it comes with very little risk as long as you use it safely. Just remember not to apply ice directly to the skin, as that can cause ice burn, never use ice on a major injury that has not yet been treated by a medical doctor, and not to over-ice as that can also cause damage to the skin like frostbite. As long as you follow those simple rules, you will enjoy great benefits with absolutely zero risks.
Cold Compress Benefits - In Conclusion
Now that you have gone through a crash course on using cold compress, it’s time for you to start freezing some ice and gather your materials so that you can get on your way to being 100 percent healthy again!
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