It’s commonplace to do cold therapy after a knee injury. But most people have different answers when it comes to its duration, so it’s normal to wonder “how long should I ice my knee?”
Well, 10 minutes seems to be the sweet spot. It’s more than enough to provide symptom relief while avoiding complications. (1)
You’ll learn why this is the case, which conditions can benefit from cold therapy, and more. These are the topics covered, tap any of the links to quickly jump into each section:
How long should you apply ice on your knee joint?
Doing 10-minute intervals of ice application every hour or two is the sweet spot. This gives your affected knee the optimal temperature to numb the pain and limit swelling, while limiting complications. (1)
But don’t push yourself if icing increases your knee pain.
Here, pain doesn’t necessarily mean more gain. If that happens, try these hacks to make cold therapy more bearable:
- Add more layers of towel between the ice pack and your skin.
- Move the ice pack in a circular manner around your knee.
- Try another cold therapy device, like a gel pack.
Yet, there are some cases in which icing can actually worsen knee symptoms. If that’s you, it’s best to ask your physical therapist for pain management alternatives.
Recommended: How ice can make knee pain feel worse
What happens if I ice my knee for too long?
Icing your knee for too long, like leaving the cold pack until it’s at room temperature, can increase your risk of (1):
- Skin and nerve damage.
Remember that the cold numbs the area, so you may not notice the damage until after removing the ice pack.
Plus, icing for more than 10 minutes may not provide more benefits.
So, to get the biggest bang for your buck, keep your timer set to 10 minutes during your cold therapy.
When can you use cold therapy?
These are common situations in which cold therapy can definitely help you:
After your workout
Some people may have inflammation and muscle soreness after exercise. You can easily manage this by doing cold therapy after your workout.
Applying an ice pack to the target area can also help it recover, ultimately avoiding injury. It can jumpstart the healing process to get you ready for your next personal best.
Related: 5 causes of knee pain while exercising.
This is an autoimmune condition targeting your joints, causing pain and swelling. Fortunately, those with this condition respond really well to cold therapy, and not only because of ice’s anti-inflammatory properties. (2, 3)
This is another inflammatory condition, but caused by uric acid crystals accumulated inside the joints. (4)
These crystal deposits can cause sudden episodes of joint pain and swelling. But as with rheumatoid arthritis, applying a bag of ice over it can help reduce your symptoms.
This injury refers to overstretching or tearing knee ligaments. These structures help connect one bone to another and can be injured due to excessive joint motion.
Cold therapy is useful during the first few days after a knee sprain, mainly to reduce pain and swelling.
This can help: 4 things to try to heal a sprained knee at home.
This occurs after a twisting injury over your thigh bone and planted foot. This can injure the meniscus, your knee’s rubbery shock absorbers.
Depending on the severity, you might feel mild swelling and a clicking sensation when straightening your knee. (5)
In this scenario, use an ice pack as a first aid tool to reduce symptoms. There are other natural remedies for meniscus tears, but it’s best to get it checked by a doctor first.
Knee osteoarthritis is the chronic wear and tear of your joint cartilage, causing pain and stiffness in some people.
Applying a cold compress can make it easier for you to move around. But it’s not uncommon to hear that some osteoarthritis sufferers prefer a heating pad instead. (6)
So, we recommend trying both ice and heat to know which one suits you best.
Keep reading: What’s best for arthritic knees – hot or cold?
After knee surgery
Surgical treatment is the last option to heal an injury. Like a knee replacement surgery for osteoarthritis, or a ligament repair for a severe sprain.
After the procedure, surgeons often recommend doing frequent icing sessions for the operated knee. This helps reduce swelling and numb the pain, which could reduce your need for painkillers.
How to apply cold therapy at home for knee pain relief?
There are tons of cold therapy tools you can use at home. The most common include:
1) Use an ice pack
This is basically a sealed plastic bag with ice cubes inside. A bag of frozen vegetables will do just fine too. Here’s how to use it on your knee:
- Wrapping the ice pack/frozen vegetables with a thin towel.
- Place it over your knee.
- Keep it in place with a bandage, if available.
- Set your timer to 10 minutes.
Learn more: The RICE protocol for knee pain.
2) Ice massage
To do this, fill a paper cup with water and freeze it. You can use this tool to give yourself a nice massage to reduce pain and swelling. Just follow these steps:
- Prepare a towel beforehand as it can get messy quickly.
- Peel the edges of the frozen cup to expose the ice.
- Circularly move the ice around your knee.
- Use the towel to wipe off any dripping water.
- Do this for 10 minutes or until the ice melts completely.
3) Cold compression sleeve
These are knee sleeves that come with built-in gel packs. It’s a multipurpose tool that can ease joint pain and improve your sense of balance. Here’s how to use it:
- Place the sleeve inside a plastic bag.
- Leave it in the fridge for a couple of hours.
- Take it out and slip the sleeve to your knee.
- Live your life!
Our recommendation: The Cocoon Knee Flex Pro (here’s our review).
How often should you ice a knee?
You should ice your knee every hour or two, especially with an acute injury.
What happens if you ice for too long?
Applying ice for too long might severely reduce blood flow and cause rashes or even frostbite.
How long should you ice an inflamed knee?
You should apply ice on your inflamed knee 10 minutes at a time, every hour or so.
Conclusion: How long should you ice a knee?
10 minutes is the most efficient duration when it comes to applying ice on your knee. This amount of time can numb the pain and reduce swelling – more than that is basically overkill. (6)
However, if you have medical conditions that make you sensitive to temperatures, ask your doctor or physical therapist for guidance.
- Kuo, Chia-Chi et al. “Comparing the antiswelling and analgesic effects of three different ice pack therapy durations: a randomized controlled trial on cases with soft tissue injuries.” The journal of nursing research : JNR vol. 21,3 (2013): 186-94. DOI: 10.1097/jnr.0b013e3182a0af12
- “Rheumatoid Arthritis.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 27 July 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/rheumatoid-arthritis.html.
- Guillot, X et al. “Local ice cryotherapy decreases synovial interleukin 6, interleukin 1β, vascular endothelial growth factor, prostaglandin-E2, and nuclear factor kappa B p65 in human knee arthritis: a controlled study.” Arthritis research & therapy vol. 21,1 180. 30 Jul. 2019, doi: 10.1186/s13075-019-1965-0
- “Gout.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 27 July 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/gout.html
- Raj MA, Bubnis MA. Knee Meniscal Tears. [Updated 2022 Jul 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK431067/
- Denegar, Craig R et al. “Preferences for heat, cold, or contrast in patients with knee osteoarthritis affect treatment response.” Clinical interventions in aging vol. 5 199-206. 9 Aug. 2010, doi: 10.2147/cia.s11431