March 8, 2019

Is ice better than heat to treat an injury?

Is ice better than heat to treat an injury?

Your child sprains his ankle during a soccer game. Do you apply heat or ice to the injury? For most people, the logical answer is to apply an ice pack to the injured area. But, do all injuries or pain need cold?

UAMS physical therapist Gayle Quattlebaum says that most of the time, ice is the better choice. “When in doubt, ice is better unless there is compromised circulation in that area. Ice is usually the method of choice to decrease inflammation, swelling and pain, which is commonly associated with an acute injury.”

Most sports-related injuries are considered acute injuries, which involve all of the following:

  • Sudden and severe pain
  • Swelling
  • Inability to place weight on the limb or move the joint through a full range of motion
  • Extreme tenderness and weakness 

Even though ice is the better choice, it is important to understand that heat and cold do different things to your body. Keep these differences in mind when deciding to use apply heat or cold to an injury:

  • Heat – Applying heat to an injury brings more blood to the area where it is applied and reduces join stiffness and muscle spasm, which makes it useful when muscles are tight. It also reduces inflammation and is good for sore or achy muscles from an intense workout or movement. Heat relaxes muscles and allows blood vessels to expand and deliver more oxygen and nutrients to an injured area. If the injury includes open wounds or cuts, avoid heat because it promotes more bleeding.
  • Cold – Cold is good for an injury or inflammation where tissues are damaged. It helps relieve pain by numbing the affected area and reduces swelling, inflammation and bleeding. Cold is good for a new injury, especially in the first 24-48 hours when swelling is the most intense. Remember these five words when dealing with a sports injury: protect, rest, ice, compress and elevate. Keeping ice on an injury for too long — more than 20 minutes — can cause tissue damage and injure areas of poor circulation.