When should I use heat versus ice with an injury?

One of the most common questions doctors always get from patients is whether they should use ice or heat on an injury. Both ice and heat help to improve healing by regulating blood flow, reducing inflammation, and reducing pain. Knowing which one to use when, though, will keep you from possibly doing further damage.

Treatment with ice

Ice should be used on acute injuries (injuries that have occurred within the last 72 hours.) Its aim is to limit the body’s response to the injury. It does this by decreasing the rate of bleeding into the injured tissues, preventing or reducing swelling, and reducing muscle spasms and pain. Ice should also be used for chronic conditions (arthritis, tendonitis, overuse injuries in athletes), but after activity. This will help control the inflammatory response.

How to apply ice on an injury

There are numerous methods for icing an injury. The first is by using an ice pack. Place a thin layer of cloth over the injury. The cloth will help to avoid frostbite. After, make sure to place the ice pack over the cloth. Leave the ice pack on the injured position for about 20 minutes. It is normal to experience phases of cold, burning, and then numbness. Note it should not be more than 20 minutes, or you can do more harm than good.

Another method of icing is ice massage

To start, freeze a paper or Styrofoam cup full of water, and then tear off the top corner to expose the ice. Move the ice continuously over the injured area for about 15 minutes. Some sports facilities and therapy centers also have whirlpools with cold water in them. Submerging the injured area in the whirlpool will have the same effect as icing. Furthermore, ice on an acute injury should be applied every 2-3 hours.

Treatment with heat

Heat should be used for acute injuries to relax, loosen the tissues and also stimulate the flow of blood to the affected area. Heat should be applied before activities and not after. Heat should never be used after a chronic injury for it will increase bleeding and make the problem worse.

How to Apply Heat to an injured area

The most effective form of heat treatment is with a hot moist towel. They are more efficient because the moisture keeps the injured area or portion from drying out and becoming brittle. You can do this by placing a towel under hot tap water, or you can as well heat it up slightly in the microwave and apply it directly to the injured area. Heating pads will also work, as well as hot water bottles and soaking in a hot bath. Do not apply heat treatment for more than 20 minutes at a time. Never fall asleep on a heating pad and do not apply body weight to the heating pad, do not lie or sit on it.

Now you can also get on the market low level heating wraps

Studies have shown these to have short-term benefits on pain. The majority of studies done that showed a benefit were on the knee, wrist, and lower back. They are not considered as a long-term solution to an injury as they can only mask the pain. Therefore, they should be used in conjunction with a therapeutic exercise regimen to rehabilitate the injured area. They are very convenient for injuries of the extremities, as a person can put one on and continue with activity.

Combination Therapy

Combination therapy may be used 48 to 72 hours after injury to maximise the effect of heat and cold. To do this alternate hot and cold compresses for 10 minutes each. Using ice will help to control swelling and circulate blood and nutrients to the area with the help of heat.

Always end with ice to prevent further pouring from the heat.

* Contact Reach Physiotherapy for a list of references used for this blog content.