When a sports injury strikes our instinct is to reach for the ice or the heating pad. But are you doing more harm by choosing the wrong method of comfort. Generally ice is used for treating acute injuries. It helps with compression, elevation and supporting your injury.
Heat, on the other hand, is best used with soft tissue injuries. It helps relieve pain and spasm.
Here’s the breakdown from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Effects of ice: Decreases circulation, metabolic activity, and inflammation and numbs the skin.
Benefits of ice: Decreases pain, swelling, inflammation, and muscle spasm/cramping. Best used after exercise or after pain-producing activity.
Risks of ice: Prolonged use can cause frostbite.
Methods for applying cold therapy: Ice packs, ice bath/ice whirlpool, ice massage.
When not to use ice: Immediately before physical activity
-If area of icing is numb, When the pain or swelling involves a nerve (such as the ulnar nerve or “funny bone”)
-If the athlete has sympathetic dysfunction (an abnormality of nerves that control blood flow and sweat gland activity)
-If the athlete has vascular disease (such as poor circulation due to blood loss, blood vessel injury, compartment syndrome, vasculitis, blood clots, or Raynaud disease)
-If there is skin compromise (such as an open wound; a wound that has not healed; skin that is stretched, blistered, burned, or thin)
-If the athlete has cold hypersensitivity, including cold-induced urticaria (hives from cold)
Ice should be used 2-3 times a day (up to once per hour). The duration varies but is usually 20-30 minutes per session.
Effects of heat: Increases circulation, metabolic activity, and inflammation.
Benefits of heat: Improves compliance of soft tissues; relieves pain and spasm. Heat is most useful in warming up stiff or scarred soft tissues before stretching or exercise; heat may also be useful in relieving pain or spasm associated with neck or back injuries.
Risks of heat: May increase swelling and inflammation; using heat for too long or at temperatures that are too high can cause burns.
Methods for applying heat: Hot packs, hydrocollator; hot bath/whirlpool.
When not to use heat: After physical activity
If the area is numb
If there is an open wound or burn
Immediately after an acute injury
If body temperature is elevated from fever or heat stress