How To Know If You Should Apply Ice Or Heat To An Injury

ice or heat an injury


Despite what some of us may think, we aren’t superheroes. We ask a lot of our bodies on a daily basis, and while they might bend the majority of the time to accommodate our demands, they do break from time to time. From slips and falls during routine activities like running errands to exercise-induced joint pains that can creep in over time as we log more and more minutes in the gym, injuries are an unfortunate part of life. But the way you treat them from the outset makes a major difference for both your recovery time and overall healing process.

One of the main questions that comes to mind when you experience an injury is, “Should I use ice or heat to help my body begin to heal?” And that answer relies on several things. So we’re going to break down exactly when hot and cold temps are beneficial for your body following an injury.

When To Use Ice

ice or heat an injury


Cold therapy, which is also known as cryotherapy, is predominantly used to treat pain that’s caused by swelling or inflammation. Cooler temperatures help to reduce blood flow to the affected area, which reduces the extra pressure being placed on nearby muscles and tendons and relieving pain in the process. Cryotherapy can also temporarily reduce nerve sensitivity, further minimizing pain.

The vast majority of fresh injuries require cold therapy to relieve that rush of swelling, inflammation and pain. This includes most sports injuries like joint twists and muscle strains and sprains, accidents and any incident that leads to a sudden, acute pain. At home, the easiest way to administer cold therapy is with pre-made ice packs, resealable bags stuffed with ice cubes or that old bag of frozen peas hiding at the back of your freezer. Many medical professionals also recommend using the R.I.C.E. method (rest, ice, compression and elevation) at the onset of a fresh injury. By applying pressure with the ice pack and lifting your affected joint or limb above your heart, you can further reduce the amount of blood rushing to the injured area much more quickly.

An important thing to remember with cold therapy, though, is that time really matters. You can create even more damage by leaving an ice pack on an injury for too long. So keep an eye on your watch and treat new injuries with ice for 10 to 15 minutes at a time (never exceeding 20 minutes). You can complete several rounds of cold therapy throughout the day to continue treating your symptoms, but give the area time to return to its standard temperatures before reaching for the ice pack again. Oh, and be nice to your skin by wrapping your cold pack of choice in a towel or cloth so there isn’t any direct contact that could damage your cells.

When To Use Heat

ice or heat an injury


Heat therapy is used when your pain is related to joint or muscle stiffness as opposed to swelling and inflammation. The higher temperatures encourage your blood vessels to send more of this nutrient- and oxygen-rich fuel to the affected area, improving your mobility and flexibility and reducing muscle pain in the process.

Heat therapy is most commonly used with chronic injuries, or injuries that have stuck around for quite some time and, therefore, aren’t as much of an inflammation issue as acute injuries are. Think old muscle pulls in your back, neck or shoulders, overuse injuries and repetitive stress injuries like tendonitis or IT band syndrome.

You can administer heat therapy in two ways: wet and dry. Wet heat therapy, like applying a warm wet towel to a painful area or taking a hot bath, is the more efficient of the two due to how your body’s tissues conduct heat. But dry heat therapy, like using a store-bought heating pad that you can warm in the microwave, is definitely more convenient. And no matter which one you choose, you can safely enjoy heat therapy for longer periods of time than you can cold therapy. Just make sure you’re going with warm temperatures as opposed to legitimately hot ones that could accidentally burn your skin.

People with poor circulation find heat therapy to be especially beneficial for their joint and muscle pain related to chronic conditions because of how it dilates the blood vessels.

When To Use Both

ice or heat an injury


There are certain types of injuries and medical conditions that are sustained over long periods of time and exhibit both swelling and stiffness symptoms. Arthritis is a prime example. It’s also not uncommon for an older muscle, tendon or ligament tear right around a joint to experience both of these symptoms. Your knees, hips, ankles, elbows and shoulders are all prime candidates for these issues, especially if you’re a very active person.

In these cases, physical therapists will often recommend using heat therapy initially to improve the blood flow to the area. It makes it more flexible and mobile so the person can complete rehabilitation exercises in a much safer fashion that provides better benefits and leads to less pain. And then once the treatment is complete, the professionals will apply cold therapy to the site of the injury to soothe any new or remaining inflammation that may be evident.

So if your chronic injury presents both kinds of symptoms, remember this treatment order for home use. You always want to apply heat (or create it with a safe warm-up movement) before stretching a stiff area, and you always want to include cold therapy in your recovery when it’s all said and done.

Now that you understand your various treatment options, you can better tend to the pain you’re feeling in the appropriate ways. And the quicker you jump to do so, the sooner your body will bounce back to its happy, healthy self.


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