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When to Ice an Injury or Heat It

People tell you to do both to help an injury improve. “Make sure you put ice on your knee” or “try a heating pad for your sore back”.  So, you may wonder which is better, icing an injury or heating it.

There isn’t really a definitive right or wrong answer. However,  ice (including options like cold compresses or frozen vegetables) is typically used on acute injuries. So, if you twist your ankle and it begins to swell, ice will reduce the swelling, which reduces the pain.

But, for more chronic or muscular pain, like a sore back or shoulders, heat is often used to help relax muscles and tissue. That too helps to reduce pain.

The Benefits of Icing & Heating

While they may have different applications, icing or heating an injury has the same goal. They both help lower pain, maintain mobility and speed recovery.

The Benefits of Icing an Injury

Icing an injury constricts blood vessels, which reduces blood flow to the injured area. Ice also ‘numbs’ pain receptors. Restricted blood flow means less inflammation, swelling and bleeding. Combined with the anesthetic effect, it lets you maintain even minimal mobility in the injured area, which helps it to heal faster.

Benefits of Heating an Injured Area

Heating an injury actually has the opposite effect of icing. Heating causes blood vessels to dilate and increase blood flow to the area. The blood brings with it more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. More warmth in the area can also ease pain and discomfort and improve the flexibility of muscles and connective tissue. Like icing, the combined effects of heating help keep the area mobile, which contributes to faster recovery.

Whether you ice or heat an injured area, do so in moderation. You should not apply either one for longer than 15 or 20 minutes. You may also have more or less tolerance for heat or cold. So pay attention to how you feel. If the heat or cold gets painful or uncomfortable, either put a layer, like a towel, between the source and your skin or stop the application altogether.

Looking for more relief for your aching back? Check out our recent article “How Physiotherapy Can Help Chronic Back Pain“.



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