Knowing whether to use heat or ice on an injury is a common query at Chevron Island Physio.
There are 2 types of injury:
- Acute injuries are sudden, sharp, traumatic injuries that occur immediately (or within hours) and cause pain (possibly severe pain). Most often acute injuries result from some sort of impact or trauma such as a fall, sprain, or collision and it’s pretty clear what caused the injury. Common signs and symptoms of acute injury include pain, tenderness, redness, skin that is warm to the touch, swelling and inflammation. If you have swelling, you have an acute injury.
- Chronic injuries, on the other hand, can be subtle and slow to develop. They sometimes come and go, and may cause dull pain or soreness. They are often the result of overuse, but sometimes develop when an acute injury is not properly treated and doesn’t heal.
Cold Therapy with Ice
Cold therapy with ice is the best immediate treatment (within 48 hours) for acute injuries because it reduces swelling and pain. Ice is a vaso-constrictor (it causes the blood vessels to narrow) and it limits internal bleeding at the injury site.
Cold therapy is also helpful in treating some overuse injuries or chronic pain in athletes. An athlete who has chronic knee pain that increases after running may want to ice the injured area after each run to reduce or prevent inflammation (not before!).
Heat is generally used for chronic injuries or injuries that have no inflammation or swelling. Heat helps to relax and loosen tissues, and to stimulate blood flow to the area. Sore, stiff, nagging muscle or joint pain is ideal for the use of heat therapy. Heat can also help relax tight muscles or muscle spasms. Do not apply heat after exercise. Because heat increases circulation and raises skin temperature, you should not apply heat to acute injuries or injuries that show signs of inflammation (use ice in these cases).
For How Long?
Apply ice treatments for no longer than 20 minutes at a time. Too much ice can do harm, even cause frostbite; more ice application does not mean more relief.
It is not necessary to apply a heat treatment for more than about 20 minutes at a time. Never apply heat while sleeping.
As each case is different, please consult your practitioner for advice.