The do’s and don’t of icing leg injuries

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The do’s and don’t of icing leg injuries

Cold therapy is highly recommended for treating different muscle injuries, especially leg muscles. The best thing about applying cold therapy to the legs is that it’s both inexpensive and accessible to any patient. When cold therapy is applied to the injury for 15-20 minutes at a time, it causes the blood vessels to tighten which lessens blood flow in order to help reduce swelling and pain in the area. It is a great treatment option, along with rest, compression, stretching and advice from a sports medicine professional.

Don’t: Ice before a run

Cold temperatures can numb your muscles. Numbing a body part before a run can block signals to your brain that would tell it to slow down or if it is experiencing too much stress. This may cause your body to have a sudden change of pace, increasing the risk of injury.

Do: Ice after a run

If you suffer an acute injury or a chronic leg condition, ice the area right after your run or as soon as you get home. Applying ice immediately decreases swelling and initiates healing.

Don’t: Ice for too long

Don’t ice your leg for more than 20 minutes. Icing a body part longer than 20 minutes will restrict oxygen flow to the injured tissues and slow the healing process. Furthermore, you also run the risk of getting frostbite. If the skin looks red, it’s a warning sign that you’ve been icing too much. Remove the ice once you experience numbness.

Do: Leave the ice on for long enough

According to Dykstra, 15-20 minutes is the ideal time to ice the leg. “If you ice less than 10 minutes, you’ll cool your skin, but there will be minimal effect on the underlying muscle tissue,” Dykstra says. 

Don’t: Just ice for a day

Icing the injury for multiple days after the trauma encourages rapid healing. However, if the symptoms worsen, or if the leg never seems to heal, consult a doctor.

Do: Continue icing throughout the day

We recommend icing five times a day to maximize the healing benefits. Give at least 45 minutes in between icing sessions. This keeps tissue temperature low to minimize inflammation. For chronically tight and sore muscles, apply heat before a run to help loosen them up. Apply ice after the run.

Different ways to ice the legs

Now that we know the do’s and don’ts of icing the legs, let’s look into the different ways you can ice your legs. There are many ways you can apply cryotherapy to an aching leg. Each of them is unique and is good for specific situations and conditions. Check them out below and see which technique will suit you best: 

A bag of frozen peas

The benefit of using a bag of peas to ice your leg is that it is cheap and accessible. It can also conform to the shape of the leg so it can cover a wider area than using an ice bag. The disadvantage of using frozen peas is that you will have a difficulty in finding means of affixing them to your leg in case you need to be hands-free. It can be a nuisance to hold a limb stationary so the bag doesn’t fall.

Home-made ice packs

According to Dykstra, water is a better conductor of thermal energy than ice. It absorbs heat from the muscle, helping to cool it down. That is why he recommends “Cold therapy that goes through a phase change—a solid (ice) changing into a liquid (water)—is more effective at cooling the body than a modality that’s always a solid (frozen peas, frozen ice packs)”. The difficulty with using ice bags or homemade ice packs is the need to remake a pack each time you ice throughout the day.


A cryocup is an ice applicator cup usually used in ice massages. Studies show that an ice massage (applying pressure rather than just setting it stationary) allows the cooling treatment to penetrate muscle tissue faster. The disadvantage of using a cryocup is that the ice is applied directly to skin, increasing the risk of frostbite.

Ice packs

The most common and convenient way to treat leg injuries is using an ice pack. Ice packs are filled with a refrigerant gel and are reusable. We suggest using an ice pack that remains flexible when frozen so it can conform to different parts of your leg.

Are you icing for too long?

Leaving ice on an injury for too long can cause more harm than good. Because ice constricts the blood vessels, it can reduce the blood flow to the injured area and slow the healing process.  The ideal time to ice an injury is immediately after the trauma, and then only for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time (waiting another 20 minutes at least between applications). It’s important to allow the tissues to warm up again before returning ice to the injury.

Ice should not be needed after the first 24 hours unless your doctor recommends it to reduce active swelling or to relieve pain.

Note that icing is generally only used for pain relief. If you are experiencing severe pain that gradually worsens or does not seem to subside, immediately seek help from a doctor or a physical therapist. 

Got a question or anything I can help with?  My name is Steve Stretton, and I’m the owner and manager at You can drop me a line here. Good luck!

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