After you have orthopedic surgery, you may be sent home with instructions on icing the part of your body that just had surgery. You may use bags of ice, ice packs or a specialized cryotherapy machine that circulates cold water, but why ice?

“Ice is a simple method of pain control after surgery,” said orthopedic surgeon Shawn D. Feinstein, M.D. “Patients who use ice as directed by their surgeon are able to reduce their pain and inflammation and be more comfortable as they recover from surgery.”

Note: Never put any method of ice directly against your skin. Place something between your skin and the ice, such as a towel for an ice pack or the recommended barrier for a cryotherapy machine.

How to Ice After Surgery

Before your surgery, your surgeon and their team will talk about the care that you will need after the surgery: the medications and their schedule, when you can shower, physical therapy exercises, and so on. For many orthopedic surgeries, information on how to use ice will be included in the instructions.

There are two main methods of applying ice: using bags of ice and ice packs or using cryotherapy machines. Bags of ice are regular ice cubes placed into a bag to hold them as they melt and are replaced when they are too melted. Ice packs are reusable packs with gel in them that can go back into the freezer when they warm up.

Cryotherapy machines are a system with a pump, a part that goes against your injured body part (with a protective layer between your skin and the system), and tubes connecting them. Water and ice are placed into the system’s cooler. The pump pushes the ice-cold water through the tube, into the part that goes against your body, and then back out to the cooler to be cooled again. More ice is added to the cooler when the existing ice melts.

Let your doctor know what method of ice you’re planning to use so they can give you information on how often you should apply the ice and how long it should stay on. Always follow the instructions of your surgeon.

How Icing After Surgery Works

Regardless of method, the ice reduces inflammation and pain. While some inflammation is necessary for healing after surgery, too much inflammation causes swelling and pain.  The ice constricts the blood vessels where it is placed, reducing blood flow. Less blood flow means less inflammation and a lower chance of swelling. Nerves also transmit their messages more slowly when cold, leading to less pain, which leads to taking fewer pain medications. If your post-surgery instructions allow you to move the part of the body that was operated on, less pain also means you’re able to move that body part more easily.

Why Not Ice Continually?

Icing your surgical site intermittently (off and on) helps to control pain and swelling while minimizing risks of icing too much.Keeping ice on longer than the recommended amounts of time or putting ice directly may cause other problems, such as frostbite or skin damage, which won’t help your body heal from surgery. Follow your surgeon’s instructions for how to ice.