It’s scary facing surgery. In addition to the risks from the anesthesia and the procedure itself, pain after the operation can be excruciating. Pain doesn’t just hurt—it also interferes with recovery and keeps patients in bed longer, which can lead to cardiac and pulmonary complications…and pain-relieving drugs have serious side effects and can be addictive.

Can’t we do better? Yes! In fact there’s now research showing that adding something very simple, safe and cheap to the post-op protocol can alleviate pain and reduce patients’ reliance on risky painkillers. It’s so simple and effective, in fact, that you may assume hospitals are doing it already—but often, they are not! What is it? Cryotherapy, which means “the therapeutic use of cold.” Translation: Ice.


Participants in the new study included patients undergoing major abdominal surgery with a midline incision (a vertical incision in the center of the belly). They were randomly divided into two groups. Both groups received typical narcotic painkillers as needed. Immediately after surgery, one group also had ice packs placed on top of their surgical dressings. Researchers asked these patients to keep their ice packs in place, with the ice being refilled as needed, for at least 24 hours after surgery…thereafter, patients could keep the ice packs for as long as they desired. The other group (like the vast majority of people after surgery) did not use ice packs.

On the day of surgery and for three days thereafter, participants periodically rated their pain levels on a scale of zero to 10, with zero indicating no pain and 10 indicating the worst possible pain. In addition, researchers monitored the patients’ use of pain medication, which was mostly under each patient’s individual control (within normal limits). The ice wasn’t expected to replace pain medication entirely, but the researchers hoped that it would help. And did it ever! Here’s how the ice affected…

  • Pain levels. The use of ice led to lower levels of reported pain at each of the seven postoperative pain checks. Examples: At the postoperative pain check on the day of surgery, the average pain score was 4.6 in the ice group, compared with 5.4 in the no-ice group. The first postoperative day, average pain scores were 3.1 in the ice group versus 4.9 in the no-ice group…by the third postoperative evening, average pain scores were 1.4 in the ice group versus 2.7 in the no-ice group.
  • Pain-medication use. During the first postsurgical day, people with ice packs used 22% less narcotic pain medication, on average, than those without ice…on the third postsurgical day, the ice group used 26% less medication than the no-ice group.

Patients in the ice group found the ice packs quite tolerable. No one asked for the ice packs to be removed prior to the 24-hour minimum…and the average time they asked to continue using the ice packs was 2.75 days. The ice treatment was completely safe—there were no increased risks for wound infection, skin damage or other problems. Ice packs are also economical, the researchers noted, costing no more than $2 per bag—or even less if you just use a regular plastic bag and ice.

Why ice therapy helps: Surgical pain stems in part from inflammation caused by incisions and other “tissue trauma”…and ice helps ease inflammation. Ice also helps numb the area.

It’s so beautifully simple.

If you’re accustomed to putting ice on every bruise, black eye or twisted ankle, using ice post-op may seem like a no-brainer…but in fact, the researchers reported, this trial was the first in which doctors employed ice packs after major abdominal surgery.

The takeaway message is clear: If you are anticipating surgery, talk to your doctor about using ice packs afterward—whether in the hospital, at home or both—to maximize your comfort, speed your recovery and increase your safety.