Clinical Review

The Cold, Hard Facts of Cryotherapy in Orthopedics

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King and colleagues28 described 2 cases of patients complaining of nodules, papules, and plaques soon after ACL reconstruction and the initiation of cryotherapy. A histological examination of their skin lesions demonstrated the presence of a perivascular and periadnexal superficial and deep lymphocytic infiltrate associated with perniosis. Dermatologists associated the perniosis with the cryotherapy cuff adhesive mechanisms, as their locations matched those of the lesions and symptoms subsided after cessation of cuff usage.28

Cases of adverse effects with perioperative cryotherapy have also occurred at our own institution. The authors obtained informed written consent from the patients to print and publish their images. In 2 separate incidents, patients overdid icing and experienced rather extreme side effects including burns and blisters (Figures 1 and 2). In light of these adverse events, the physicians have questioned whether RICE ought to be part of their standard perioperative recommendations. These physicians are not alone in their uncertainty. Interestingly, even Mirkin,31 who coined the RICE mnemonic, now believes that consistent icing post-injury actually inhibits the body’s natural inflammatory healing response, delaying rather than speeding recovery, and suggests that icing ought to be used for pain control only.



Though there is ample literature supporting the common belief that cryotherapy minimizes inflammation at the cellular level, whether or not it results in meaningful improvements in post-surgical orthopedic outcomes remains unclear. Table 1 reflects a dearth of evidence to support the widespread current practice of cold therapy following orthopedic procedures, but few studies could demonstrate a significant difference in the analgesic use, VAS score, or ROM between cryotherapy and control groups. It is worth noting that these studies used different cryotherapy systems. Though in theory the continuous flow cryotherapy systems are similarly designed, there are potential differences among them that have not been controlled for in this analysis. All studies had <90 participants and focused on a single joint or procedure, making it difficult to draw large scale conclusions about the utility of cold therapy in the postoperative orthopedic population at large. Furthermore, researchers measured endpoints at a range of time intervals that were inconsistent across studies. In some cases, the significance of the impact of cryotherapy on recovery within a single study differed based on the time point at which researchers measured outcomes.12-14 This raises the question as to whether cryotherapy has no benefits, or whether they are simply time-dependent. Future studies should seek to ascertain whether there is a postoperative time window in which cryotherapy could potentially expedite the recovery process.

Similarly, Table 2 shows a lack of consensus regarding the effect of advanced cryotherapy when compared to traditional ice application on pain, analgesic use, and joint mobility after surgery. However, all but 1 of these studies focused on knee procedures. Therefore, our findings may not be applicable to orthopedic surgeries on other joints. Nevertheless, the use of advanced cryotherapy in postoperative orthopedic care may wane if researchers continue to show that it is no more beneficial than its far less expensive counterpart of ice and an ace bandage.

The case studies discussed in this review serve as cautionary tales of the dangers of cryotherapy when used improperly. Though frostbite and subsequent tissue necrosis seem most common, physicians should be made aware that compartment syndrome and perniosis are also possible consequences. Orthopedic patients perhaps have an increased risk of developing these side effects due to the nature of their injuries and the large cutaneous surface area to which cryotherapy is applied. These outcomes could seemingly be avoided with improved educational initiatives targeted at both healthcare personnel and patients. Orthopedic surgeons might consider adding a short, instructive video focusing on proper usage as well as signs of adverse events to their discharge protocol to limit occurrences of these pitfalls associated with cryotherapy.


There is inadequate literature to support the of use postoperative cryotherapy of any kind in the field of orthopedics at this time. More robust, standardized studies, and a formidable economic analysis of advanced cold therapy systems are necessary before physicians prescribing cryotherapy can be confident that they are augmenting patient recovery. Nevertheless, as new developments in medicinal cryotherapy occur, it may be possible for the orthopedic community to wield its salutatory effects to limit complications and improve post-surgical outcomes.


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