If you have chronic neck pain, occasional stiffness or aching, muscle pain from overexertion, or tenderness that worsens through the day, an ice cold compress can numb the pain and reduce inflammation. Relief and healing are within reach. But don’t just reach for a melting bag of ice or those frozen brussel sprouts in your freezer. You can create an inexpensive, reusable homemade ice pack to be at-the-ready next time you need pain relief.

What Is an Ice Pack & Its Uses

An ice pack or gel pack is a portable plastic bag filled with water or other liquid. These packs are used to keep food cool in coolers or lunch totes, or they are used as a cold compress to alleviate the pain of minor injuries. Waterworks well because it has a much higher latent heat of fusion. An ice pack is best for icing large areas of pain, swelling, or spasm such as a swollen knee, muscle strain, shoulder soreness, or neck or back muscle spasm. You simply place the ice pack on the painful area for 20 minutes minimum per session. Hold in place with a towel, plastic wrap, or a cloth bandage.

ice cubes

Ice is one of the safest and most effective at-home treatments for injury, pain, or discomfort in muscles and joints. It decreases spasms, pain and swelling from common and sometimes chronic injuries. Sometimes it is alternated with heat therapy to further its effects. When you are injured, there can be uncontrolled swelling in the tissues. Swell can cause more damage and pain from the initial injury. This is not only uncomfortable, but it can delay your recovery.

Using ice immediately following the injury reduces swelling. Ice can also be beneficial in that it decreases tissue damage, pain, blood clot formation, inflammation, and muscle spasms. Besides pain relief, ice has been shown to enhance the nutrient flow to the injured area. It aids the removal of waste products, increases strength, and promotes healing. The ice effect works on anyone of any age. Ice shrinks or constricts local blood vessels and lowers tissue temperature. Blood flow to the area is reduced, and cell metabolism is slowed. This can limit hemorrhage and cell death in severe injury.

Ice Therapy Stages

When applying ice to an injury, there are four distinct stages to an ice pack therapy. The first stage or sensation you will feel is cold; the second is burning/pricking feeling, the third stage you will feel is aching, which can be more uncomfortable than the initial pain. The fourth and most important stage is numbness. As soon as numbness occurs, remove the ice from the area. The time it takes to reach each phase depends on body weight. But it generally takes between 20 and 30 minutes to reach all four stages.

Always use caution when using ice packs. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, Raynaud's Syndrome, cold, allergic conditions, paralysis, or areas of impaired sensation, you should not use ice. Even if you don't have these conditions, only use the packs as stated above; for about 20-30 minutes and remove when the area is numb.

Benefits

ice pack on ankle

During an initial injury, tissue damage can cause uncontrolled swelling. This swelling can increase the damage of the initial injury and delay the healing time. If you use ice immediately, you will reduce the amount of swelling. Ice decreases these: swelling, tissue damage, blood clot formation, inflammation, muscle spasms, and pain. The ice enhances the flow of nutrients into the area, aids in the removal of metabolites (waste products), increases strength, and promotes healing. This "ice effect" is not related to age, sex, or circumference of the injured area.

How to Make a Homemade Ice Pack?

There are many options when it comes to making a homemade ice pack. Try the ones that appeal to you and that are most comfortable. It’s good to have at least a homemade ice pack frozen and ready to go when an injury occurs. While there’s nothing wrong with filling a bag with ice or grabbing a bag of frozen peas these ideas use household items to provide cooling relief.

In most cases, you’ll need small, medium and or large resealable bags. Double bagging can provide assurance that your ice pack will not leak and give your skin a layer of protection from the ice. Most of these recipes use water as an ingredient or a liquid. But a few, such as the rice bag and loose change compress, use dry ingredients only.

Freeze a Towel or Sponge

freeze sponge

This is the most accessible recipe. Towels and water combine to create relief. To make a towel into homemade ice pack, place a folded, damp towel in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer for 10-20 minutes. Then take the towel out of the bag and place it on the affected area. A frozen washcloth works well for smaller areas, such as fingers or a bruised lip. You can also use a frozen washcloth as a teether for an infant who is teething.

Along those same lines, you can wet a sponge and put in the freezer. After it freezes, put it in a baggie, then wrap it in a sock or a towel before applying it to the sore back. The sponge is also good for small areas, or children’s boo-boos. But don’t give it to a teething baby, he or she might choke on it.

Gel Homemade Ice Packs

Homemade gel ice packs are more comfortable than a bag of frozen veggies. The gel molds better to the area and they are really cheap to make.

Corn Syrup

Corn syrup is a must for making pecan pie or caramel, but did you know this thick, sticky liquid makes a great gel ice pack? It is non-toxic, so if it leaks, it’s sticky, but you won’t be wondering if you are touching something harmful. Pour corn syrup into any sized resealable bag, about half to two-thirds full. Then close it, and freeze for several hours. The very cold, but not solid bag can be easily molded around ankles, knees, or wrists.

Dish Soap

dishwashing liquid

As with corn syrup, liquid dish soap can be frozen into a gel and flexible. But it also has a distinct advantage over corn syrup. It can be firm and icier depending on how long you freeze it. Two hours will get the soap to a moldable state, like the corn syrup. Leave the dish soap ice pack in the freezer for several hours or days; it will be much firmer. Just squeeze the liquid soap into a resealable bag, close and freeze.

Rubbing Alcohol

Rubbing alcohol isn’t just for cuts and sterilizing items. Add rubbing alcohol to water to prevent the water from freezing solid. This is an easy way to create a homemade ice pack. To create the right consistency combine 1½ cups of water with a ½ cup of rubbing alcohol into a quart zip-lock bag. Seal the bag and freeze overnight. You’ll have a gel ice pack in the morning.

Salt

salt

This is a really inexpensive and easy way to make an ice pack. You just add some table salt to water. Salt will prevent the water from freezing completely. Use a sandwich bag or quart resealable bag and add 2 tablespoons of salt to 2 cups of water. Freeze for several hours or overnight.

Vodka

As with salt and rubbing alcohol, the drinking kind of alcohol changes the freezing point of water. You may know someone who stores their liquor in the freezer. It’s ice cold but not frozen. Simply put a ratio of vodka to water in a resealable bag. The more vodka, the less firm your homemade ice pack will be.

Loose Change

Coins

Raid the change jar or piggy bank in the name of wellness. Keep a bag of change in your freezer. The metal coins stay cold and can be molded to the area of the injury.

Diaper, Water, & Alcohol

If you have small children in the house, then this homemade ice pack is a breeze to make. We don’t advise buying a pack of diapers to make this because diapers are pricey. Fill a clean diaper with a 50-50 solution of rubbing alcohol and water. Roll the wet diaper into a small bundle and put it in your freezer. It won’t leak as the resealable bags can, and it’s moldable.

Ice Rice

Rice grains are an alternative to a liquid. If you make a simple rice bag from fabric, you can heat the rice. It makes an excellent heat pack or ice pack.

Conclusion

As you can see, the benefits of ice packs are many. They keep food from spoiling while away from refrigeration. They can also promote healing and relieve pain to a new or chronic injury. But you don’t have to go out and buy ice packs. A homemade ice pack is easy and inexpensive to make. Having a few of them in your freezer can provide comfort when injury strikes.

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