Searching for "cold therapy" can be confusing with so many products being touted as providing, you guessed it, cold therapy. It's been used for the longest time to help treat the top two results of any injury -swelling and pain. Times have changed though, and now the term is, unfortunately, being used to define everything from an ice bag, to a cold gel wrap, and even larger cold water circulating devices used after orthopedic surgical procedures. With so many items being referred to as "cold therapy", it's understandable to see where the confusion lies, and where some good old clarification is needed. Learn how the different types work, which product is best for your injury, or proceed to the bottom of the page to select a cold therapy category.
Types of Cold Therapy:
Cold therapy systems are a form of cold therapy that feature an insulated cooler that circulates cold water out to a pad and is typically used after an orthopedic surgical procedure. Yes, it is cold therapy, but it's more than just a bag of ice. They often have pumps to circulate the water and most have thermostats to help regulate the temperate. They're designed to be used for 6-9 hours so that the user can control swelling and limit pain after surgery. Different types of pads can be connected to the unit to provide cold therapy to different body parts. These products are great for people who are having an orthopedic surgical procedure or have chronic musculoskeletal pain that is appropriate to treat using cold therapy. They range in price from $90-$250.
A cold pack is also a form of cold therapy, and for most of us, this conjures up an image of a large, chemical-filled, pack that can be used on many different areas of the body. These used to be mainly square in shape, but now they're available in a variety of shapes to better contour around the body part you're treating. They usually stay cold for longer than an hour because of the chemical gel inside and, consequently, may increase the chance of causing a cryo burn (yes, an actual burn) because of the prolonged exposure to cold temperatures directly against the skin. They are usually found to be the cheapest form of cold therapy and do not come with a wrap of some sort to help hold them in place. They should always be used with a barrier like an old pillow case. This can help reduce the chance of receiving a cryo burn. They typically run $5-$35.
A gel pack (aka ice wrap, gel wrap, cold wrap) is the latest type of cold therapy to hit the market. They feature a combination of gelatinous gel and water making them soft, pliable, and safer to use. They stay cold for around 20 minutes and provide effective treatment. Unfortunately many people believe that a cold pack that's left on the body for 40 minutes must be twice as beneficial as one left on for only 20 minutes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Physicians often recommend 15-20 minutes 2-3 times per day. These products are effective, safe, and apply effective cold therapy to the body for a variety of injuries. They are designed to not reach the point of freezing and, lose their coldness more quickly, thereby reducing the chance of suffering a burn. They usually come with a wrap that helps keep them in place so you can move around and do other things instead of holding it the hold time. They come in "universal" styles, which can be used over major body parts like your knee or shoulder, or smaller sizes that are perfect for use over smaller areas like your ankles and wrist joints. They average $35-$75.
Finally the old style ice pack featuring the rubberized/nylon bag with a lid is still around even today and provides great cold therapy for a variety of injuries. They may or may not come with an actual wrap to help hold them in place, and come in different sizes depending on whether you're icing a large area like your shoulder or a small area like your ankle. They hold regular ice and apply cold therapy for 25-40 minutes. They're also economical, durable, but slightly less convenient than a gel wrap.
Making Your Own Cold Therapy:
By taking a plastic bag and filling it with both water and rubbing alcohol you can make a home rendition of a moldable cold gel pack. The alcohol works by lowering the freezing point of the solution thus enabling it to mold to your body instead of turning hard like a slab of ice, but it does melt faster than a quality ice pack/cold wrap because it absorbs heat faster than the more advanced gels in today's products. So you'll have to shuttle replacements from the freezer more often (ie more work) to achieve the same results.