Heat or Ice?  Which One is Best for Me?



“Should I use heat or ice for my injury?”  This is a common question made to many physicians, physical therapists and athletic trainers.  And it is a very important one!  How you take care of an injury, especially in the first 48 to 72 hours can make a difference in the length of recovery from the injury. 


After most musculoskeletal injuries, such as an ankle sprain or muscle strain, the body responds with an acute inflammatory process, which lasts about 2-3 days. 


During this time (the first 48-72 hours after injury), ice (or cold therapy) is the preferred method of treatment.  The ice will minimize any inflammation and swelling which may occur from the injury.  In addition, ice is beneficial in helping relieve pain and reducing muscle spasms.  The ice packs may be applied for about 10-15 minutes, once every hour.  It is important not to leave the ice on for any time much longer than 15-20 minutes, as frostbite or an allergic reaction may occur from prolonged exposure.


The cold therapy can be applied in a variety of ways, including using ice cubes, a commercial cold pack, or even a bag of frozen peas or corn.  The cold packs and bags of vegetables are good choices because they will easily conform to different body shapes.  A thin towel barrier between the cold source and the skin may be needed for people who are hypersensitive to cold. 

Heat is a good treatment source for people with chronic pain or stiffness, or after the acute inflammatory process has ended.  Heat therapies aid in increasing blood flow to the area being treated, helping reduce muscle spasms and pain.  Heat packs can be applied for 15-20 minutes at a time, and treatments can be repeated every 3 hours.  Sleeping with a heat pack can be dangerous, creating burns and other tissue damage. 


A final method of treatment would be the use of both ice and heat…this is called a contrast therapy treatment.  By using heat and cold in short intervals, you can get the best of both treatments, as well as helping reduce chronic swelling or edema in the area being treated.   This treatment can be used with warm and cold water immersion, or with hot and cold packs.  This treatment should only be used on chronic injuries. 


Ask your doctor or practitioner which therapy may be best for your situation.


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