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Should I Apply Ice or Heat to an Injury?

When to apply ice to an injury

Swelling and inflammation can cause serious pain and discomfort after an injury. A simple and effective way of treating such an injury is elevating and icing your injured body part. Ice is usually applied in a cycle of 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off, and it’s very important to do as soon as possible after the injury or accident occurred. Ice and elevation helps to reduce swelling and inflammation, and preventing swelling and inflammation from getting worse will allow you to heal faster.

Applying heat to an injury early on can cause increased blood flow, which usually will increase swelling and is something that should be avoided. If you have had a recent injury (within the last 48 hours) where swelling is an issue, you should be using ice. Ice packs can help to minimize swelling around the injury, reduce bleeding in the tissues, and reduce muscle spasm and pain. Ice packs are often used after injuries like ankle sprains have occurred. Therefore, it is best to apply ice to an acute or new injury.

Acute injuries involve tissue damage and inflammation around the injury site. Swelling occurs when organs, skin, or other parts of your body enlarge. It is typically the result of inflammation or a build-up of fluid. For external swelling, the enlargement of skin or muscles is usually visible. However, other signs of swelling include the build-up of fluid in the affected area. With any injury, it is important to respond quickly. The sooner you apply ice to reduce inflammation, the more likely it is that the injury will heal quickly. (Ice may limit/prevent internal bleeding.)

Ice may also be used after high intensity exercise to prevent or reduce inflammation. It is important to be mindful that icing can irritate the skin or even cause tissue damage. The easiest way to tell whether to ice or not is if there is swelling, and if that swelling does not go down it is important to see your doctor.

What types of injuries should you apply heat to?

Chronic pain or chronic conditions usually call for heat therapy. Chronic pain indicates that the body has not fully healed and pain will recur more frequently. Some common chronic conditions include:

  • Muscle pain 
  • Muscle soreness
  • Stiff joints
  • Arthritis
  • Old or recurring injuries

Heat therapy will do the opposite of what ice therapy will do. Unlike ice therapy’s ability to constrict the blood vessels, heat allows for our blood vessels to expand and our muscles to relax. Heat creates a soothing effect which occurs because the heat stimulates circulation and increases tissue elasticity, providing pain relief.

Just like with ice, it is important to take certain precautions. Avoid using heat for an extended amount of time, and never sleep with a heating device on. 

Ice vs. heat

The main way to decipher whether you should be applying heat or ice to your body is that typically ice is for injuries, while heat is for chronic pain and stress. Heat can make inflammation worse and ice can make tension and spasms worse, so if applied incorrectly, they have the potential to do some mild harm.