Do I Use Heat or Ice when Injured?

Jun 22, 2015 | fitness

Ice Vs HeatConfused about when to apply ice or heat to an injury?

In general terms we sustain two types of injury when it comes to exercise or playing sports. Here are some easy to follow tips and remedies next time you sustain an injury or feel exercise related pain.

Acute injuries are generally as a result of impact or trauma such as rolling your ankle, falling or colliding with someone. These injuries cause sudden and often severe pain and will result in the area becoming inflamed, tender and painful!

A Chronic injury on the other hand is often referred to as a ‘persistent’ pain that has developed slowly and recurs over a period of time. These niggle pains we often ignore for a long time, such as lower back pain, RSI or the onset of shin splints! For runners shin splints can come and go, often pushed through and if not treated can develop into stress fractures.

So when do you apply ice or heat to these injuries?

Ice application is the best ‘immediate’ treatment for the acute injuries because it helps reduce the inflammation and swelling of the area. Ice is known as a vaso constrictor meaning, it narrows the blood vessels therefore restricting the blood that heads to the injured area. The ice will also help numb the area, reducing the pain.

Easy tip to remember…if something is inflamed, don’t add heat to inflame it more!

Remedies We don’t all need an Olympian designed ice pack; sometimes a packet of peas from the freezer will do the trick. Ice packs from Coles or the chemist are always handy to keep in the freezer however you can use ice cubes in a wet towel or plastic bag, even a paper cup frozen is great as you can peel it down as the ice melts.

Other tips:

  • Ice can burn the skin so ensure you have a material cover (such as a tea towel) around whatever you use;
  • Apply as soon as possible after the injury;
  • Leave ice on injury for a maximum of 20mins and reapply every 2hrs if necessary.

Heat application is obviously the opposite. Where you have muscle or joint pain we want to ‘stimulate’ blood flow to the area so the healing of tissue can begin. Heat relaxes the injured area or tight muscles (DOMS), helping to reduce stiffness and relieve pain. For chronic pain sufferers heat is also known to ‘sooth the nervous system’. Easy tip to remember: soothe those tired, sore muscles with a nice warm bath (or heat).

Remedies When we say ‘heat’ we don’t mean ‘hot’. Moist heat is generally the best approach and this may be in the form of a hot water bottle (we all have one of those laying around in the cupboard), deep heat cream, wheat bags or even heat pads. OR if you don’t have any of those, grab a pair of socks, fill it with rice, tie a knot in the end and put it in the microwave for 2-3minutes.

Other tips:

  • Apply for up to 15-20mins and make sure you have layers in between the skin and heat pad;
  • If your skin starts to hurt or reddens, stop with the heat;
  • Do not use heat on a new injury;
  • Don’t lie on a heat pad or water bottle as you may fall asleep and cause burns.

The Final Verdict

ICE: directly AFTER the injury took place, when the swelling begins and you are trying to reduce swelling.

HEAT: When the injury is in the ‘repair’ stage (24+ hours after) and you want more blood flow to help repair the injury.

Of course, if in doubt, talk to your Doctor!


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