Should I use heat or cold on an injury?

Hot or Cold?
Using heat or ice on an injury can have many benefits, but if used improperly, heat or ice can slow your recovery time.  Here are some guidelines to follow, depending on which scenario you find yourself in

Scenario A) I just injured myself.
Apply cold immediately after an injury to help reduce the amount of swelling that may occur.  Apply the cold for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, 3 to 5 times a day.  Avoid using a rigid ice pack, and try to avoid areas with bony prominences or superficial nerves.
If the area is still continuing to swell after 72 hours or still appears inflamed, continue to use ice. 


Scenario B) I hurt myself over a week ago and the injury has stopped swelling.
When the swelling is no longer increasing and the skin is no longer hot to the touch, you can use heat on the injury.   In some cases it may be beneficial to alternate between heat and ice to further reduce swelling. Alternating between heat and ice creates a sort of “pumping” action in the vessels, helping to flush out some of the excess fluid.  

Scenario C) I have a chronic injury
Apply heat to stiff (not inflamed) joints or muscles to relax the muscle tissues and make it easier to move.

How to apply Heat/Cold?
Apply either heat, cold (or alternating) for 10-15 minutes at a time, several times a day.

ALWAYS wrap the pack in a moist towel to increase effectiveness and avoid skin burn/frostbite (it happens more often than you think!).

NEVER sleep on top of a heat/ice pack as you risk burning your skin.

BE CAREFUL if you have diabetes or any other conditions that can cause impaired sensation. Regular skin checks while icing and/or heating are especially important.

For more instructions on how to use heat of ice, ask one of Catalyst's staff! Remember, ice and heat alone are not enough to heal an injury! They may temporarily decrease pain, but won't fix the problem or prevent future episodes!!

Therapeutic exercise should be part of ANY rehabilitation program as it is the MOST EFFECTIVE way to influence tissue healing!

Dalyce Lees, BSc (Hons), MScPT
Registered Physiotherapist


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