Ice vs. Heat for Injuries
A man who has lower back pain.

Ice vs. Heat for Injuries

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Life can be a challenge when you strain a muscle, suffer from a headache, or wrench your back. In the event of an injury, which is better treatment: ice or heat? There is some understandable confusion regarding when to use ice vs heat for injuries.

Acute Injuries
In the case of acute injuries, which are less than six weeks old, it’s best to use ice as a primary treatment. The chill of cold therapy constricts blood vessels, which numbs pain, lessens inflammation, and minimizes bruising. Heat should not be used on acute injuries because it can increase inflammation and delay proper healing. However, it’s okay to use heat for chronic injuries, which are older than six weeks. An increase in blood flow relaxes tight muscles and eases aching joints. In addition, it is beneficial for stiff joints and helps improve range of motion.

Everyone experiences headaches from time to time. While some can be easily treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, others require some extra steps. For example, a cool compress can help relieve the throbbing pain from headaches, and heat wraps or moist heat can help ease the underlying cause of the headaches, such as neck spasms and tension.

Muscle Strains and Sprains
A combination of cold and heat therapy is usually helpful for muscle strains and sprains. The best approach is to apply ice as soon as possible to ease inflammation such as swelling, redness, or tenderness and numb the pain. Once the inflammation has subsided, it is good to switch to heat to help relieve any stiffness in the muscles.

There are many ways to apply cold and heat therapy. However, the general recommendation is to apply it for up to 20 minutes on and off.

Here are some typical cold and heat treatments and how to use them:

Ice packs: Use ice beyond 48 hours until swelling, tenderness or inflammation are gone.

Ice massage: Use an ice cube to massage the tender area until it’s numb. This is best for areas too awkward for ice packs, such as the elbow or heel.

Moist heat: Take a warm bath, shower, hot tub or whirlpool.

Heating pads: Do not use them on the highest setting and remove the heating pad if it becomes uncomfortably warm.

Unlike with ice, however, do not apply the heat source directly to your skin. Also, limit heat treatment to 15-20 minutes, and don’t repeat. Once daily before exercising is sufficient.

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