Ice vs. Heat:
Which Therapy is Right for You?
Have you ever been confused about whether to use heat or ice to treat an injury? You are not alone. Most athletes experience pain and soreness at some point in their sports career, yet most don't understand when to use ice and when to use heat to treat an injury.
Craig Garrison, PhD, PT, ATC, SCS, who heads research and development at Texas Health Ben Hogan Sports Medicine Center, says most athletes think that ice and heat can be used interchangeably when, in fact, there are distinct differences.
"As I tell kids, swelling is a sign that our bodies are responding in an inflammatory manner," says Dr. Garrison, an athlete who played college football. "That injured joint is very 'angry' at us right now. The way we calm that down is to put ice on it. Think about using heat for an old injury that seems stiff."
Dr. Garrison offers tips on "ice vs. heat" that should help you avoid all heated debates on the topic:
- Use ice for areas with inflammation, which tend to be red or swollen, and are sometimes painful. For example, sprains and strains.
- Though most people only think about using ice for the first 48 hours after an injury, ice can also be used on a long-term basis to control pain and minimize swelling.
- Remember the acronym R.I.C.E., which stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. This process is recommended three times a day, for 15 minutes at a time, for two days to help control swelling.
- Older adults or young children should cover the ice with a lightweight cloth to ensure the ice doesn't cause frostbite on the skin.
- Ice can be used to help with pain and also helps in general recovery. Talk to your physician or physical therapist about using ice post-workout as a means of recovery. One of the ways the body recovers is to decrease the inflammatory process, which ice helps to do.
- If an injury gets worse or doesn’t show improvement in 48 hours, see your physician.
- Heat can be used for old injuries that may be a little stiff, like an achy joint or old muscle injury. Heat is used to warm up an area and get blood flowing to that part of the body. For example, an old hamstring injury can be a little tight and stiff, but when heat is added the muscle becomes pliable.
- Heat treatments are generally recommended for 15 minutes to 20 minutes.
- Make sure you are not using heat that's too hot, as that can be damaging.
- Heat can be used on a variety of muscle pains, but work with your physician to determine the right kind of treatment for you.
Injuries that are painful, red, or swollen need ice. Choose heat for minor muscle pain or soreness.