The heat vs. ice debate is one of the oldest and most contested in sports medicine. Which one do you use on your particular injury and when? Well, it the answer depends on a few key facts and once you understand what you’re looking for it’s simple to know whether to ice the injury, or wrap it in a heating pad. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions to help you discern which is best to use for your injury.
Chronic vs. Acute – If this is an injury that you suffer from constantly in some form or another for an extended period of time it’s considered chronic. The way that knee you blew out in high school always hurts after activity is an example of chronic pain. For these, you use heat. The point is to relax the tissue so it doesn’t become inflamed during activity. However, if this is an acute injury, or one that’s just happened, you ice it. Ice reduces swelling and helps numb the area to reduce pain. So, for chronic pain use heat and for acute, use ice.
When do I apply the heat or ice – Heat that is used for chronic injuries should be applied prior to activity to relax the tissue ahead of time. Rather than going in cold with a chronic injury, it’s best to warm up the area and increase blood flow before exertion. This will help reduce the onset of inflammation and the pain associated with it. For an acute injury, apply ice directly after the activity. An acute injury will swell directly after the injury occurs so it’s best to get ice onto it as quickly as possible. Think of twisting your ankle. It’s a good idea to get an ice pack on it before it swells to the size of a tennis ball. So, for chronic injuries apply heat before activity and for acute injuries, apply ice directly after.
How long do I leave it on – You actually do not leave either on for too long. Roughly 20 minutes for each is a good standard. Leaving ice on for too long can cause skin damage and the effects of both ice and heat start to diminish at about the 20 minute mark.
Those are the typical questions and answers concerning heat and ice. But as always it’s best to listen to your body. If heat makes an injury feel better than by all means use heat. But the physiological responses our bodies go through indicate that heat is good for chronic issues and ice for acute.