Most of us will suffer from a swollen knee at one point or another. And, cold therapy is an extremely effective remedy for that. So, knowing how to ice a knee properly will get you back to your routine A.S.A.P.
It all starts with the minimum tools for the job – some form of ice and a timer. Having a bandage handy will give extra benefits.
Yet, there are other strategies to do and mistakes to avoid to ensure you maximize the benefits. These are the topics we’ll discuss – tap on any of them to easily navigate through the article:
7 steps to properly apply ice for knee pain
Icing your knee is quite easy. But you can make it more effective by following each of these steps:
1) Place some ice inside a resealable plastic bag.
Whether it’s ice cubes or crushed ice, put a good amount inside a plastic bag – preferably a resealable one. This will minimize the wet mess afterwards.
If you don’t have any ice available, a bag of frozen peas or frozen vegetables will do just fine.
Pro tip: Squeeze the excess air out before sealing your homemade ice pack. This ensures the bag easily covers the contours of your knee.
2) Enclose the ice pack with a thin towel.
This simple precaution can help avoid complications, like an ice burn. It also prevents your skin from getting wet, as the ice melts and condensation starts to form outside the bag.
3) Apply the ice pack to your affected knee joint.
Press down on your homemade ice pack to cover your target area. Depending on the size of the bag, you may have to make another one – especially if your knee is very swollen.
4) Wrap your knee using a bandage.
5) Keep your foot up.
Elevating your leg helps drain the fluid buildup that may be present, by using gravity and your natural blood flow. Doing this can also flush out the inflammatory chemicals that may cause your knee pain.
6) Set your timer for 10 minutes.
Research shows that this timeframe is enough to relieve pain and swelling. (2) Going past it could potentially reduce its effectiveness and increase your risk of frostbite if you’re not careful.
7) Repeat the whole process a few times per day.
It might take multiple applications before you feel any significant improvement in your symptoms. We recommend doing the 10-minute intervals every hour or two, depending on your inflammation levels.
Common methods for applying cold therapy
During your recovery, you’ll probably use a combination of cold therapy methods. This often depends on which stage of healing you’re in, the characteristics of your injury, and other factors.
The most popular methods are RICE, PRICE and POLICE:
RICE is all about reducing pain and swelling fast. The acronym stands for:
- Rest – Resting your knee from excessive activities that may worsen inflammation.
- Ice – Using cold therapy to reduce pain and swelling.
- Compression – Wrapping your joint with a compression bandage to also reduce swelling.
- Elevation – Propping your leg up while doing the previous steps so gravity drains the excess fluid as well.
As you can see, that’s the step-by-step we described earlier. This is because RICE is the most simple and well-known protocol for ice therapy out there.
The RICE method is ideal for:
- Recent knee injuries.
- The pain and inflammation after knee surgery.
- Other inflammatory knee problems, like rheumatoid arthritis.
It’s a very straightforward protocol as well, making it easy to include in any home treatment program.
Keep reading: RICE for knee pain.
It’s the RICE protocol but with additional protection – thus the P at the beginning. This can look like wearing a knee brace or a crutch during the day, to prevent the injury from worsening.
The PRICE method is ideal for:
- Injuries causing moderate to severe instability, like sprains or meniscus tears.
- Chronic joint problems, like knee osteoarthritis.
Think of this method as a more active approach to recovery. It stands for (3):
- Optimal Loading – Tissues need some load to heal properly, but too much of it can do the opposite effect (hence the optimal part).
The key here is optimal loading. It can look like doing some light exercises to stimulate tissue regeneration while using your symptoms to gauge your progress. (3)
It has a bit of trial and error, which is why it’s best to do it under the guidance of a physical therapist.
The POLICE method is ideal for:
- Anyone recovering from moderate to severe knee injuries.
- Athletes looking to bounce back after an injury.
Effective tools for applying cold therapy
Bags filled with ice are just one of the many tools you can use for cryotherapy. Other options include:
Cold gel packs
These are packs filled with gel. Some need to be squeezed or bent to activate the cooling effect, while others require some time inside the freezer.
They are fairly cheap and practical. But low-quality packs tend to have cheap plastic that ruptures easily, leaking the gel out. Don’t worry – the substance isn’t toxic on the skin, but shouldn’t be swallowed.
Ice paper cups
You can easily do this at home by filling a paper cup with water and letting it freeze.
Once it’s frozen, peel off a bit of the paper cup to expose some ice. Then, apply the ice directly onto your knee, moving it around in a circular manner.
Another home remedy tool you can use by simply soaking your towel in a bucket full of water. Wring it out and place it inside a resealable plastic bag before putting it inside the freezer.
Pro tip: Take it out after a few minutes before placing it on your knee so it easily moulds to your joint.
Ice tub bath
Make your bathtub a recovery tool by filling it with a bucket full of ice. Once it’s cold, soak the lower half of your body for a few minutes. If it’s too uncomfortable, just dip your knee and lower leg.
This usually contains menthol that produces a cooling and pain relieving effect. (4)
Use one by holding the can a few inches away from your bent knee. Spray it right on your target area in a linear direction.
Cold compression sleeve
This device provides cold therapy and compression in one place. Simply put the sleeve inside a plastic bag before letting it cool in your freezer. After an hour or two, slip the sleeve up on your knee and you are ready to go.
It’s versatile and practical, although pricier than other options.
5 mistakes to avoid when applying ice to your knee
The following are some seemingly harmless errors you might not be aware of that can decrease the effectiveness of cold therapy:
1) Leaving it on for too long
Just like anything else, too much of a good thing could be bad for you.
In this case, icing for too long might increase your risk of ice burns, and nerve or muscle damage from poor circulation.
You can avoid this by using a timer at all times when applying ice to your knee.
Learn more: What happens if you leave the ice for too long?
2) Keeping your leg on the ground
Ice can give you pain relief but you’ll need all the help you can get if your knee is swollen.
Not elevating your leg misses your chance to drain back excess fluid buildup. But simply lifting your feet above chest level is enough to reap the benefits.
3) Taking it off too early
I know the first few moments of ice application can be a bit uncomfortable. But this is part of the process and it should eventually feel better.
See, the sensation of ice on your skin goes through four phases – cold, burning, and aching before it finally reaches a numbing feeling. (5)
So, let it stay on for a while. But, if you’ve had it for more than 5 minutes and it’s still uncomfortable, that’s a sign that you’re doing something wrong. Try:
- Placing a thin towel between the ice pack and the skin.
- Doing in shorter bouts of time (5 minutes instead of 10).
- Trying another cold therapy tool.
4) Having direct contact with your skin
This is a misconception wherein people think that direct icing means faster healing. But it’s far from the truth.
Direct ice exposure on your skin, especially for a few minutes, could lead to skin frostbite. (6) This may require special medication attention depending on its severity.
So, always wrap your ice packs and move around your ice paper cups often to avoid this mishap.
5) Not resting
Sure, the ice pack on your knee may feel good after a while. But it’s not a quick-fix solution to your injury.
Think of icing as just one part of the whole recovery process. Once you are injured, you also have to take a step back and allow your body to heal by resting.
Should I ice my knee if it hurts?
Yes, you should consider using ice if your knee hurts since it can help reduce pain and swelling. (4)
Is it better to ice or heat your knee?
It’s better to ice your joint after an acute knee injury. If after a couple of days it still hurts, try heat therapy.
How long should you ice a sore knee?
You should apply ice on your sore knee for about 10 minutes at a time to maximize its pain-relieving effect.
Conclusion: Is there a best way to ice a knee?
The secret to properly using ice on your knee injury is all in the details.
Knowing the right tools and the science behind them can be the key difference between simply using an ice pack and recovering from your injury.
You can try each icing protocol and see which works best for you. As always, you can ask your healthcare provider for guidance if you need a boost in your recovery.
- van den Bekerom, Michel P J et al. “What is the evidence for rest, ice, compression, and elevation therapy in the treatment of ankle sprains in adults?.” Journal of athletic training vol. 47,4 (2012): 435-43. DOI: 10.4085/1062-6050-47.4.14
- 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
- Dhillon, Himmat et al. “Current Concepts in Sports Injury Rehabilitation.” Indian journal of orthopaedics vol. 51,5 (2017): 529-536. doi: 10.4103/ortho.IJOrtho_226_17
- Malanga, Gerard A et al. “Mechanisms and efficacy of heat and cold therapies for musculoskeletal injury.” Postgraduate medicine vol. 127,1 (2015): 57-65. DOI: 10.1080/00325481.2015.992719
- Johnson, Norma. THE EFFECTS OF THREE DIFFERENT ICE BATH IMMERSION TIMES ON NUMBNESS (SENSATION OF PRESSURE), SURFACE TEMPERATURE, AND PERCEIVED PAIN. 2004. Brigham Young University. Masters Dissertation. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1180&context=etd
- Basit, Hajira, et al. “Frostbite.” StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, 27 June 2022. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30725599/