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When to Use Heat or Ice to Treat an Injury

Mar 2, 2016


We all experience minor injuries at some point or another. From a twisted ankle to neck strain, these aches and pains often subside on their own. Applying heat or cold are two effective, non-pharmacological methods of reducing pain. Understanding which to use in your situation can help put you on the fast track to healing.

Best Uses for Heat Therapy

The purpose of heat therapy is to expand the blood vessels. This facilitates better blood flow to the affected 

tissue, providing the necessary oxygen and nutrients for optimal healing. Heat therapy can also be effective in alleviating muscle pain or tenderness.

The Long Island medical center doctors at PBMC recommend heat therapy for chronic muscle pain and joint aches. You can choose between dry or moist heat therapy. Moist heat, such as a hot water bath, often penetrates better. For safety when using a heating pad or hot water bottle, wrap it in a thin towel. This prevents the hot pack from scalding the skin.

Never use heat therapy if you have an open wound or poor circulation. If there is swelling, a heat pad can exacerbate the problem. For best results, apply heat for no more than 20 minutes at a time.

Best Uses for Cold (Ice) Therapy

Cold therapy has the opposite action as heat: it slows blood flow through the vessels. This reduces pain and swelling, as molecules that trigger the inflammatory response cannot be delivered as quickly. Cold therapy is particularly effective for sprains, bruises, strains and other minor injuries.

Cold therapy is only effective in the first 24 to 48 hours following injury, as this is when inflammation is most prominent. To make use of this technique, apply an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel to the affected area. Hold the cold pack onto the area for 20 minutes. Give yourself at least a 10-minute rest before reapplying cold for another 20 minutes.

Beginning with cold therapy and switching to heat therapy later can be an effective way to stimulate healing.

When to Seek Medical Attention

A minor muscle strain or twisted ankle may resolve on its own. If the pain does not subside after a few days of heat or cold therapy, it is time to seek professional help. Make an appointment with our Long Island orthopedic specialists to determine what might be wrong. Our specialists will conduct a thorough assessment, order medical imaging if needed, make an accurate diagnosis and work with you to create a comprehensive treatment plan.