Cryotherapy––often referred to as cold therapy––is the application of cold as part of the treatment plan for acute injuries, such as muscle strains and sprains, during 15-20 minute sessions.
Physical therapists employ a variety of methods for the cold application, including ice massage, ice packs, commercial cold gel packs, cold sprays, and cold whirlpool baths. Cryotherapy can also be used in conjunction with other physical therapy treatments, such as heat and exercise therapy.
This treatment can be uncomfortable, since it produces stinging and burning sensations as the affected area cools. But after several minutes, the blood vessels constrict, reducing blood flow to the affected area. The restriction results in numbness and, ultimately, pain relief. Removal of the cold application then increases blood flow, helping the body’s natural healing process.
By reducing intramuscular temperatures, cryotherapy decreases pain, inflammation, bleeding, and edema formation. Cryotherapy is generally most useful immediately after an acute tissue injury, but it’s also helpful for inflammatory conditions like bursitis, tenosynovitis and tendonitis.
Cryotherapy can be used to reduce pain and inflammation after physical therapy sessions or as part of a home exercise program, but due to risk for peripheral nerve injury and frostbite, your physical therapist might not recommend unmonitored use of cold application.