Should I Apply Ice or Heat to an Injury?

After sustaining an injury, the most critical factor to consider is whether you need to see the doctor immediately or if you can take care of the injury at home. For example, if you are in significant pain, you should see a healthcare professional as soon as possible to alleviate the tension or discomfort you are experiencing.

Whenever an injury occurs, the site of the injury can swell and discolor due to bruised blood vessels and tissue. If it’s a sprained ankle or other affected joint, applying ice and heat at different intervals can help reduce swelling and manage the pain. You can read more about the application of ice and heat, but remember, the best solution for your injury is to see a doctor.

Apply Ice or Heat to an Injury
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How Heat and Ice Affect an Injury

The application of ice and heat each play different roles in the treatment of any injury. Most injuries cause the body to react with inflammation and swelling. It is highly recommended that you first use ice to reduce the swelling and heat therapy later on. Ice is commonly used to cool down joints or tissue and reduce swelling. On the other hand, applying heat would cause the exact opposite effect and may result in an undesired reaction. Heat therapy is best used during the recovery phase of rehabilitation.

Applying Heat

Applying heat or “heat therapy” is most beneficial for soft tissues, such as muscles, blood vessels, nerves, tendons, and tissues that surround the bones and joints. The heat from a medical-grade heating pad will loosen up muscle fibers and help recover the joint’s range of motion. As the heat warms up the muscles, blood flow increases, and blood circulation improves, which can soothe and relax sore or aching muscles. It’s very important to make sure you are managing the temperature optimally because very high heat can result in mild burns and lead to more discomfort. If you have any concerns, consult your doctor.

Applying Ice

Ice is best used on acute injuries immediately after they occur. Examples of acute injuries include wrist fractures, ankle sprains, shoulder dislocations, and strained hamstrings. Applying ice reduces the swelling and temperature of the affected area, protecting the tissue from further damage. Also known as “cold therapy,” this method of injury management works by decreasing blood flow, which in turn reduces inflammation. It can also temporarily numb the region, which further alleviates pain.

Which is the Best Option for You?

Many healthcare professionals recommend using ice for acute injuries to reduce pain and inflammation. Heat is more effective for muscle pain or stiffness that reduces a muscle’s range of movement. However, there are certain cases where heat should not be used. If the injury site is either bruised or swollen (or both), applying ice can help. But heat should never be applied to an area with an open wound as it can result in more pain and cause further damage to important tissue.

Lastly, individuals who have sensory processing disorders (SPD) that prevent them from feeling certain sensations should not apply ice or heat without the supervision of a doctor or rehabilitator. SPD can make a person overly sensitive or under-sensitive to sensory information (stimuli), and they may not be able to fully manage the heat or cold temperatures of medical devices safely on their own.

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