Ice or Heat Compression on an Injury?

A physical injury can be debilitating and make you feel helpless. Whether you have an old injury or a new one, it’s important to take immediate action to treat and manage it correctly in order for it to heal. One of the most commonly asked questions is whether you should use ice or heat compression (like a heating pad) on an injury.

The answer to this is that it all depends on the injury. Ice is generally recommended for acute injuries, while heat compression is usually effective for chronic injuries. Keep in mind that this is just a general rule of thumb, so there can of course be exceptions.

In any case, both a hot and cold compress can be an effective means to manage and treat an injury.

Read on to learn more about ice and heat compression with respect to acute and chronic injuries.

Ice Treatment for Acute Injuries

For injuries that have occurred within about 48 hours, ice treatment can be effective to deal with symptoms such as swelling. When you have a sudden injury to your skin or underlying muscles and bones, you may experience swelling and redness in the affected area due to inflammation.

Inflammation is the body’s immune system’s response to trauma — it involves dealing with the irritant (injury or pathogen) and alerting you that something is wrong.

Ice works quite well to reduce symptoms of inflammation such as:

  • Swelling (edema due to build up of immune cells and fluids)
  • Muscle spasms
  • Pain
  • Redness/bruising (associated with blood leaking into tissues)

Ice counters the effects of pain and inflammation by restricting blood flow and causing muscles to tighten. This is why ice packs are often used for acute injuries like ankle sprains as it helps to minimize swelling and alleviate pain.

Ice treatment can also be used for chronic conditions or injuries such as athletes who keep aggravating certain muscles due to overuse. However, it is important to note that ice should never be used before physical activity. It should only be used on the injured area after to help reduce inflammation.

Heat Treatment for Chronic Pain

Heat is an excellent way to help soothe and relieve pain from more chronic injuries that can cause chronic pain. It has the opposite effects of ice treatment as it helps increase blood flow, relaxes and soothes muscles, and helps heal damaged tissue.

Heat can be especially beneficial for muscle stiffness and arthritic pain. For example, using a heating pad or hot/warm compress for lower back pain and neck pain can help soothe the affected muscles and relieve pain. Application of heat to the tight or achy area can help loosen the muscles to provide soothing pain relief.

Generally, heat is good for: 

  • Old, nagging injuries
  • Aches and soreness
  • Chronic muscle pain
  • Overuse injuries (heat should be used before activity, and ice after)

Heat is typically your best bet for aches and soreness whereas ice is best suited for swelling associated with acute trauma and serious injuries. Heat should never be applied to fresh injuries as it can increase swelling, or after physical activity as your body is already heated up.

You Can Use Both Ice and Heat Treatment for Pain

In some cases, alternating between ice and heat treatment can be beneficial. Overuse injuries are a good example of this where you can use heat before activity, and then use ice afterwards.

Similarly, you can use alternating rounds of ice and heat for knee pain treatment. For example, for chronic knee pain, if you have swelling in your knee in the mornings, you can use ice to help reduce it. You can then use heat later in the day and evening to help soothe deep aches and soreness.

For injuries with open wounds like cuts or burns, neither heat nor ice should be applied

You should always consult with a healthcare professional to determine what type of injury you have and the best way to treat it.Contact Kilian Chiropractic for professional physical therapy and massage therapy services for all your needs. You can give us a call at 604-688-0724 or fill out the form on our contact page.