Whether you've injured yourself at home, at the gym, or on the field, cold compression therapy is the perfect answer to help you heal faster and more effectively than traditional first aid techniques alone. This innovative therapy modality is practiced by everyone from professional athletic trainers and sports medicine physicians to emergency room personnel and physical therapists, helping people of all shapes, sizes, and ability levels to better recover from both short and long-term injuries and illnesses.
Combining very cold temperatures with either static or dynamic compression helps reduce pain and swelling in injuries like sprains, strains, tears, and anything that causes swelling and inflammation. The cold temperatures temporarily restrict blood flow to the injured area by narrowing the blood vessels, while the compression reduces swelling by pumping built-up fluids away from the site.
Cold compression therapy can be used to help calm muscle spasms, minimize bruising, and soothe nerve endings, encouraging quick and effective healing for a variety of muscle, tendon, and ligament injuries. This unique therapy is available to you in several different forms, each designed to suit a variety of needs ranging from professional therapy, sports, and medical applications through personal first aid to use at home.
What about RICE?
RICE is a popular mnemonic taught to help students remember their first aid basics for treating an acute soft tissue injury. The acronym stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation and sometimes includes the addition of a 'P' at the beginning which refers stands for 'Protect the area.'
This advice is not only given for acute injuries, but is also recommended by orthopedic surgeons following surgical procedures to aid in healing and recovery.
Traditionally, this advice would be followed by elevating the affected area, usually a limb, placing a cold compact on the injury, and wrapping it in an athletic tape or bandage of some type. Cold compression therapy takes this process to the next level by combining cold and compression in a dynamic process that actively pumps away edema and stimulates fresh blood flow to soothe away pain and encourage healing.
When swelling is left unchecked, it can sometimes cause a secondary injury due to the lack of freshly oxygenated blood to the area. Cold and compression is the best way to stave this off, reducing swelling and stimulating blood flow. Additionally, the sooner that cold and compression can be applied after an injury occurs, the better that blood flow can be controlled, resulting in less inflammation and pain as well as quicker recovery times.
What are the benefits of Cold Compression Therapy?
Medical, sports, and rehabilitation experts agree that cold therapy combined with compression therapy is one of the best treatments for musculoskeletal pain, injury, and inflammation. Cold compression therapy can provide a variety of benefits that help speed healing and improve feelings of pain and swelling.
Reduced swelling - Compression and cold therapy help to reduce swelling and inflammation, moving excess fluids away from the site and stimulating the flow of fresh blood.
Pain mitigation - Cold therapy especially offers an analgesic effect, reducing pain and soreness in the affected area. This helps to negate any need for over-the-counter or prescription pain medications, reducing dangerous side effects and overall costs of medication.
More efficient nutrient and oxygen delivery - Compression helps to stimulate the movement of blood and lymphatic fluid, bringing needed nutrients and oxygen to the damaged tissues, while encouraging the removal of cellular and tissue waste through lymphatic drainage.
Faster tissue repair - Because of the reduction of swelling and inflammation combined with the increase in oxygen and nutrients to the affected site, tissues are able to repair themselves more quickly.
How to choose a Cold Compression Unit
While all forms of cold compression therapy will help reduce inflammation and stimulate healing, there are several different types of wraps and equipment available, with each designed specifically to cater towards unique needs in professional, athletic, and residential applications.
Cold compression therapy units typically utilize either static or dynamic compression.
Static compression is generally applied through wearable wraps or braces to the affected area, and is better for providing simple, graduated pressure. These systems are usually the more economical choice, featuring a lower price tag and a simpler design, but they are also not quite as effective long-term as higher-end dynamic compression systems.
Dynamic compression offers greater control over pressure levels, working through intermittent pneumatic compression technology to circulate chilled air or water at predetermined intervals to cool and compress the affected area more effectively than static systems. Dynamic compression is often used by professional sports/athletic trainers, physical therapists, rehabilitation specialists, and emergency room staff due to its increased efficacy in treatment and healing.
Best Static Compression Wraps
Available in multiple shapes and styles, wearable cold compression wraps are specifically designed to provide stay-in-place therapy. Most provide adjustable static compression benefits, and come with a variety of gel packs that are either kept in the freezer or create a non-toxic chemical freeze when activated. Some devices offer secured and ergonomic holders for ice and cold water.
They are configured for every part of the body, and will stay in place on the shoulder, neck, various parts of the back, elbow, wrist, knee, ankle, and foot. With their comfortable, firm, and consistent pressure, Ice20’s extensive line of wearable cold compression wraps provide exceptional therapy, and their no-leak, refillable ice bags are convenient and easy to use.
Best Dynamic Compression Wraps
Combining the convenience of wearable therapy with dynamic cold compression, some compressive cold devices offer the best of both worlds, especially for users who need to stay active. Active compression designs like those offered by G-Force allow wearers to adjust the pressure up or down with the easy-to-use pneumatic bulb. The reusable, re-freezable gel packs provide efficient cold therapy to reduce inflammation, pain, and swelling, while the constantly-adjustable compression further enhances this process, resulting in faster relief and healing.
The convenience and versatility provided by wearable dynamic cold compression allow users to get on with other activities and daily living tasks, all while receiving hassle-free and comfortable healing therapy. The dynamic wraps are designed to stay in place for all different parts of the body, such as the knee, shoulder, and lower back.
Best Intermittent Pneumatic Compression Systems
Often utilized in professional therapy, athletic, and medical settings, intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) devices provide controllable, dynamic compression and temperature modulation to treat a wide variety of patients with injuries. Although they all work a little bit differently offering various forms of cold compression, IPC units are typically designed to treat a patient who is sitting or lying down, with a specified program and time suited for each individual.
As a versatile and effective form of dynamic intermittent pneumatic cold compression, the Squid Cold and Compression Therapy Unit delivers effective cold compression deep into the injured body areas, resulting in immediate pain and swelling relief. With its comprehensive selection of disparate body part wraps and sizes, this multi-chambered system offers adjustable programming for sequential intermittent compression and temperature control to treat a vast array of patients. It provides an effective and economical alternative to older and clunkier clinical cryotherapy equipment, and offers the convenience and versatility of being portable, as well.
Another outstanding innovator in the dynamic cold compression field is Game Ready. As one of the most trusted voices in physical therapy, Game Ready offers cutting-edge physical therapy systems created by CoolSystems, Incorporated. Their patented technologies provide therapy with new and inventive methods, and have become the gold standard their competitors aspire to meet. Their Med4 EliteMulti-Modality Therapy System not only provides the utmost in intermittent pneumatic compression, but also offers cryotherapy, rapid contrast therapy (RCT), and thermotherapy all in one amazing, compact device.
Specifically designed to improve rehabilitation and treatment outcomes, this combination treatment equipment helps to control swelling, reduce pain (and nerve pain), improve range of motion, enhance circulation, and accelerate the healing process. Their dual-action ATX wraps divide water and air circulation into two separate compartments, resulting in maximum skin contact and heightened circulation in and out of the damaged tissues.
Their proprietary ACCEL (Active Compression and Cold Exchange Loop), used in their Pro 2.1 Cold Compression Therapy Unit manages the functions of the wraps connected to that unit, or the Med4 Elite unit, which are available for every part of the body. The unparalleled dynamic compressive cryotherapy provided by Game Ready’s professional equipment offers medical professionals the best methodology to reduce pain and swelling from their patients’ injuries, along with faster healing and recovery times.
It is important to note that while cold compression therapy when properly applied is safe for most people, there are certain contraindications to be aware of with other existing conditions.
If you have a hypersensitivity to cold temperatures or desensitivity that makes you unable to perceive temperatures, cold compression therapy may not be right for you. It is not recommended for anyone with Raynaud’s Phenomenon, cold urticaria, cold erythema, or cold hemoglobinuria.
If you’re unsure about your risks and benefits, please consult a licensed healthcare professional before using any form of cold compression.
Hulet Smith, OT
Co-founder/CEO of Rehabmart, Pediatric Occupational Therapist, husband, and father. Passionate about connecting special needs kids with superb nutrition, sensory integration, and complementary health strategies. Excited about Rehabmart's mission to become the premier online educational platform which empowers caregivers by spotlighting innovative devices and interventions to achieve optimal patient response and recovery.
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