Heat VS Cold Therapy for Injury Management

Heat VS Cold Therapy for Injury Management

Do you know when to use ice and when to use heat when you’ve injured yourself?  Most people know to apply ice to an acute injury, like a sprained ankle, but aren’t so sure when to use heat.  The following guidelines will help guide you towards the correct protocol.

Generally there are two basic types of injuries: acute and chronic.

  • Acute Pain is of rapid onset and short-lived
  • Chronic Pain develops slowly and is persistent and long-lasting.

Acute injuries are sudden, sharp, traumatic injuries 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 obvious what caused the injury.

Chronic injuries, on the other hand, can be subtle and slow to develop.  They tend to 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 is the best immediate treatment 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.  To ice an injury, wrap ice in a thin towel and place it on the affected area for 10 minutes at a time.  Allow the skin temperature to return to normal before icing a second or third time. You can ice an acute injury several times a day for up to three days.

Cold therapy is also helpful in treating some overuse injuries or chronic pain in athletes.  For example, 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.

The best way to ice an injury is with a high quality ice pack that conforms to the body part being iced.

Heat therapy:

Is generally used for chronic injuries or injuries that have no inflammation or swelling. Sore, stiff, nagging muscle or joint pain is ideal for the use of heat therapy.  People with chronic pain or injuries may use heat therapy before exercise to increase the elasticity of joint connective tissues and to stimulate blood flow.  Heat can also help relax tight muscles or muscle spasms. Don’t apply heat after exercise.  After a workout, ice is the better choice on a chronic injury.

Because heat increases circulation and raises skin temperature, you should not apply heat to acute injuries or injuries that show signs of inflammation and swelling.  Safely apply heat to an injury 15 to 20 minutes at a time and use enough layers between your skin and the heating source to prevent burns.

Because some injuries can be serious, you should see your health care practitioner if your injury does not improve (or gets worse) within 48 hours.

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