Ice Massage for Joint and Muscle Pain: How to Do It and Why It Helps

Sore spots can benefit from combining icing with massage. Read on to learn when ice massage helps and how it can aid in pain relief.

Published Date: Nov 9, 2023
applying-ice-on-ankle

Ice Massage for Joint and Muscle Pain: How to Do It and Why It Helps

Sore spots can benefit from combining icing with massage. Read on to learn when ice massage helps and how it can aid in pain relief.

Published Date: Nov 9, 2023
applying-ice-on-ankle

Ice Massage for Joint and Muscle Pain: How to Do It and Why It Helps

Sore spots can benefit from combining icing with massage. Read on to learn when ice massage helps and how it can aid in pain relief.

Published Date: Nov 9, 2023
applying-ice-on-ankle

Ice Massage for Joint and Muscle Pain: How to Do It and Why It Helps

Sore spots can benefit from combining icing with massage. Read on to learn when ice massage helps and how it can aid in pain relief.

Published Date: Nov 9, 2023
applying-ice-on-ankle
Table of Contents

Most of us are familiar with the healing power of ice. But if you’ve never considered combining the benefits of ice with the benefits of massage, it’s time to give this powerful combo a chance — especially if you have a non-acute injury (say, you sprained your ankle a week ago) or a chronic condition like arthritis. 

A staple among physical therapists, ice massage (often referred to as ice cupping) merges two natural and effective pain relief methods to provide a quick, targeted treatment that may help speed healing.

Read on to learn more about ice massage therapy, including how it helps and when and how to use it to ensure a safe and relaxing experience.

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Our Hinge Health Experts

Jillian Aeder, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Aeder is a Hinge Health physical therapist and a board-certified athletic trainer.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

Benefits of Ice Massage

Ice massage is a form of cryotherapy (aka cold therapy). It provides all the benefits of icing, including:

  • Reduces inflammation

  • Limits swelling

  • Relieves pain

  • Promotes healing

When you add in the massage component, the benefits only compound, says Jillian Aeder, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “Instead of just resting an ice pack or bag of frozen peas on an injured area, applying gentle pressure and massaging with ice can promote lymph drainage and blood circulation, which can reduce swelling. It also helps to decrease tissue tension and release tight spots that may be limiting your range of motion.”  

Dr. Aeder doesn’t advise using ice massage therapy at the onset of pain, like right after twisting your knee or straining your shoulder, for example. Initially, she recommends icing without massage. “I wouldn’t immediately recommend adding extra pressure to a newly injured area,” she says. “I like to add massage to icing a few days or weeks after injury, depending on the severity of the injury, as part of a recovery plan.” 

Ice massage may also prove beneficial when treating general soreness, chronic pain, or long-term inflammation, such as tendinitis, arthritis, or injuries like a torn meniscus

Ice massage works best in relatively small and easy-to-reach areas (unless someone else does it); it can take longer to perform over a large surface area, such as your back. 

How to Do an Ice Massage

While ice shouldn’t generally be applied directly to skin, it’s safe to massage the skin with ice because the ice isn’t (or shouldn’t be) in contact with the skin for too long. 

  • Fill a small (3-4 ounce) paper or foam cup about three-fourths of the way with water and put it in your freezer. Alternatively, reusable ice massage cups can also be purchased online.

  • When you’re ready to use the cup, tear away ¾ of the top to expose the ice and leave the bottom of the cup to hold on to. (As the ice begins to melt, peel off more paper as needed and use a towel to wipe away excess water.) 

  • Rub the exposed ice onto the affected area, focusing on where most of the pain is felt. You can apply gentle pressure in a circular motion, figure eights, or straight lines — whatever feels best,” says Dr. Aeder. 

  • Unlike straight icing, which is often performed for 20 minutes on, then 20 minutes off, ice massage is quicker. You’ll know you’re “done” by monitoring the four stages of cold treatment: Stage one is an uncomfortable feeling; stage two is a stinging sensation; stage three is burning or aching; and stage four is numbness, which is generally achieved after about 10 minutes. 

  • Stop the ice massage once you’re numb, to avoid burning the skin.

  • Repeat the ice massage up to five times a day, allowing at least an hour between massages for your skin temperature to return to normal. 

Ice Therapy Precautions

Ice massage is considered safe when certain precautions are taken. These include: 

  • Avoid massaging the ice in one spot for too long

  • Only massage until your skin feels numb

  • Don’t fall asleep with the ice on your skin

Ice therapy is not recommended for people with rheumatoid arthritis, Raynaud’s disease, cold allergies, paralysis, or areas of poor sensation. If an area is numb before ice is applied, for instance, due to a pinched nerve, don’t use ice. Ice therapy should also be avoided on areas with open wounds. 

PT Tip: Combine Stretching with Ice Massage

Adding a stretch during your ice massage can help to maximize the benefits, including improved mobility due to reduced tissue and muscle tension, says Dr. Aeder. If you’re dealing with knee pain, for instance, you can massage the front of your knee with ice while doing a heel slide exercise to promote knee flexion. If your ankle hurts, perform the ice massage at the back of your ankle while doing a calf stretch to improve ankle mobility.

Common conditions where this combo can easily be employed include those that cause pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion, including hand arthritis, hip arthritis, knee arthritis, plantar fasciitis, and Achilles tendinitis. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you can access therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

  1. Petit, F. (n.d.). Cryotherapy. Physiopedia. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Cryotherapy 

  2. Quinn, E. February 18, 2021. Treating Sports Injuries With Ice Massage. VeryWellFit. https://www.verywellfit.com/ice-massage-for-a-sports-injury-3120823