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Should You Use Cold or Heat For Your Sport Injuiry?

February 26th, 2010 · 1 Comment ·


You may have seen orthopedics using ice packs and heat pad to treat injury. Have you wondered which one is the right one to use for your injury, ice or heat? Also, how to do it and how long should the ice or heat treatments last?

Before you decide what to use, ice or heat, you need to know the types of general sports injury – acute and chronic injury.

  1. Acute injuries are sharp traumatic injuries that happens immediately and cause severe pain. One may fall, sprain or collide with another player. The injuries will have swelling and inflammation.
  2. Chronic injuries are slow to develop. The soreness will only take place after some time. These injuries are normally caused by overuse.

When To Apply Cold Therapy

  • Cold therapy with ice is the best immediate treatment for recent acute injuries (within the last 48 hours) because it reduces pain and swelling around the injury spot. Ice causes the blood vessels to narrow (vaso-constrictor) and therefore limits internal bleeding at the injury spot.
  • Ice also decreases firing of the nerve endings. That makes you feel numb and thus decreases pain.
  • Ice treatments can also be used for chronic conditions, but after the activity and not before the activity. Never ice a chronic before activity.


How To Apply Cold Therapy

  • Apply ice, which is wrapped in a thin towel for comfort, to the affected area for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Get a high quality ice pack that conforms to the body part.
  • Do not apply the ice directly to the skin to avoid frost bite.
  • Allow the skin temperature to return to normal before icing a second or third time. You can ice an acute injury several times a day for up to three days.

When To Apply Heat Therapy

  • Because heat increases blood circulation and raises skin temperature, heat can help relax tight or spasmed muscles. Heat can make muscles, tendons and joints more flexible and easier to stretch. Arthritis patients can use heat at joint can use heat to improve mobility.
  • Therefore, heat gets the body ready for activity and may prevent injuries. Heat is best used for chronic injuries where there are no signs of inflammation.
  • So, do not apply heat to acute injuries or injuries that show signs of inflammation.
  • Use it for only for chronic and before the sport activity and not after the activity.

How To Apply Heat Therapy

  • Athletes with chronic pain or injuries may use heat therapy before exercise to increase the elasticity of joint connective tissues and to stimulate blood flow. Do not apply heat after exercise. After a workout, ice is the better choice on a chronic injury.
  • Like cold packs, heat therapy should be applied for no longer than 15 minutes though it can be applied several times a day.
  • Use enough layers between your skin and the heating source to prevent burns.
  • Moist heat is better than dry heat. So, try using a hot wet towel. You can buy special athletic hot packs or heating pads if you use heat often. If you are using an electric heating pad, make sure that you do not fall asleep on the pad, since this can lead to serious injury (for heating more than 15 minutes).
  • Check your skin frequently for any signs of burning. If your skin is too red, remove the heat immediately and apply ice or cold water to cool the skin.
  • Ultrasound is a form of deep heating that is used by therapists and trainers.


What about alternating hot and cold treatment every 15 minutes for any injury?
Combining both hot and cold treatment in such a way is not as effective as using ice or heat by themselves. Stick with ice or heat alone and use it according to the injury types.

How about those creams and lotions you can rub on that feel hot or cold?
For Asians, we have these “miracle” creams or ointments and my parents use them. These creams do not change the temperature of the tissue under the skin. Therefore, they do not replace the use of ice or heat. However, these lotions do stimulate nerve endings on the skin and can temporarily decrease pain. Most of the time, it is the massaging effect of putting cream on is helpful. If they make you feel better, go ahead and use them but do not forget to use actual ice or heat when necessary.

In short, rule of thumb – think “Heat Before, Ice After” athletic activity and ice for acute pain and heat for muscle ache. Last but not least, remember that home care is not a substitute for care provided by your physician. In the case of serious injury, always seek treatment in an emergency care facility.



Category: Health

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1 response so far ↓
  • Hold my hands // Feb 26, 2010 at 7:23 PM

    Thank for the interesting read. I’ve been training for a while and never knew about this. If I was injured I just leave it be and stop training altogether until its heals. I guess this technique could speed up the healing process.

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