To ice or not to ice that is the question...

When should you use ice to treat an injury, or is heat better? 

Depending on the type of injury that is suffered, it is common practise to apply either ice or heat to the area. It is important to know which of the two is going to be more beneficial and exactly how long you should apply them for.  

In very basic terms, think of ice for injuries and heat for muscles, so

  • use ice for acute injuries, chronic injuries (after exercise) 
  • use heat for chronic injuries (before exercise), chronic stiff joints and joint pain. 

Ice treatment

Ice application (also called cryotherapy) is most frequently used within acute injuries (within the first 48 hours) this is mainly to reduce inflammation and to control pain levels. Inflammation is the bodies attempt to protect the injury and initiate the healing process.  

Applying ice to an injury causes small vessels to constrict, which is known as vasoconstriction. This limits the amount of inflammation that builds up in the area. In addition, by applying cold to the area it has a numbing effect which helps relieve the immediate and irritating pain.  

Nevertheless, ice is also used on chronic (long standing conditions) injuries, such as overuse. The reason for this is because it helps to control inflammation. This should always be done AFTER a sporting activity (and never applied beforehand).  

New acute musculoskeletal injuries should receive 15-20 minutes of ice application every hour, 6-8 times per day for the first two days following an injury.  

Heat treatment

Heat treatments do the opposite to cold treatments. They cause vessels to open, also known as vasodilatation. 

They are predominantly used on chronic conditions to help relax, loosen tissues and increase blood flow within the area.  

There are many different types of heat applicants that may be used, such as a hot water bottle, heating pad or a hot wet towel. These should be applied with special care at a moderate heat and not left for extending periods to avoid burning. Heat should be applied for a maximum of 20 minutes and should never be used while sleeping. 

Heat may be used after the acute stage, before rehabilitating exercises are performed to loosen tissue. However ice should be applied after exercise to reduce inflammation.  

Although hot tubs, sauna’s and steam rooms may feel good after being injured, the heat will cause more inflammation to arrive to the injured area. Consequently causing more swelling, stiffness and pain, therefore reducing the overall healing time.  

If you aren't sure on the best course of action, speak with one of our therapists. We are here to help! Give one of our therapists a call, email or book online