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Should you use ice or heat on an injury?

Should you use ice or heat on an injury?
Should you use ice or heat on an injury?

Ice and heat are commonly used to treat sports-related injuries, such as sprained ankles or shoulder injuries. Sometimes, the best treatment for an acute injury or chronic soreness can be the application of ice or heat to the affected area. But how do you know whether you need to use ice or heat for your injury or chronic pain or soreness?

Although it is important to check in with your doctor or trainer if you suffer an injury, here are some general guidelines for using ice or heat.

When to Use Ice

Ice is used as an anti-inflammatory to treat swelling that occurs with an acute injury. Swelling is the body’s natural response to injury, but it compresses tissues in the area, resulting in pain. If you sprain your ankle while jogging, applying an ice pack can help minimize swelling due to your injury.

Cold therapy (also known as cryotherapy) is used to numb the pain of an injury. Cold causes blood vessels to narrow, reducing the flow of fluid to the affected area.

In cases where an athlete is experiencing chronic soreness or pain, perhaps due to an overuse injury, ice can be applied after activity to ease discomfort and reduce swelling in the area. When used to treat chronic pain, ice should never be used before activity.

Be sure the ice pack is covered in a towel before applying to the affected area, and never use ice on areas of the body with poor circulation. The earlier ice is applied to an injury, the better. During the first 48 hours after an injury, ice should be applied several times a day for no more than 20 minutes at a time to decrease swelling and control pain.

When to Use Heat

Heat is used to help relax muscles and tissue, stimulate blood flow, relax spasms and soothe sore muscles. It is generally used before exercise on areas of chronic pain. Heat should not be used directly following physical activity, as it can aggravate existing pain.

If you suffer from recurrent or persistent pain, such as back or shoulder pain, a heating pad or even a hot towel applied to the area can provide relief by relaxing the muscles. Heat also helps eliminate toxins and built-up lactic acid in the painful area.

Do not apply a heat treatment for more than 20 minutes at a time, and never apply heat while sleeping. Too much heat can result in burns, so falling asleep with a heating pad under your back is not safe.

Another way to use heat to ease pain is by taking a hot bath or shower, or by sitting in a sauna or steam bath. These heat treatments are called systemic treatments. It’s important to stay hydrated during systemic heat therapy, and to avoid prolonged exposure to the heat.

Remember: if you suffer an acute injury while participating in winter activities, apply ice to the area as quickly as possible. See your doctor if swelling and pain do not subside, significant bruising occurs or if you experience immobility of the area. 

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