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Using Heat or Ice to Treat Injuries

by Dorothy Cohee7 Comments

Athletes are often recommended by medical professionals to use a method like ice or heat for injuries. But they may be told by a friend to use which ever one feels better. So how do you know when to use heat or ice to treat injuries?

The Principles of Ice/Cold Pack

The physiological effects of cold therapy include decreasing:

  • Blood flow
  • Inflammation
  • Edema, or increased swelling
  • Pain conduction
  • Metabolic demand

This is why ice is often recommended in an acute injury, such as an ankle sprain or a muscle strain. Acute injuries are abrupt or unexpected injuries, which is often why your body will swell.

The Principles of Heat/Hot Pack

The physiological effects of heat therapy include increasing:

  • Blood flow
  • Metabolism
  • Pain relief
  • Elasticity of soft tissue

This is why heat is often recommended to apply when feeling stiff and tight. With chronic pain, or overuse injuries, heat can also help relieve pain and loosen muscle tissue.

How do You Know When to Use Heat or Ice to Treat Injuries

You should use ice if you have an acute injury, or the first day of soreness.

Such injuries may include:

  • Hamstring strain
  • New onset knee pain
  • Achilles strain
  • Ankle sprain
  • Hip flexor strain
  • Muscle soreness (potentially after a hard workout)

Apply ice to the region you feel pain for 15-20 minutes to decrease any swelling, pain and inflammation. If cold therapy is being applied to a lower extremity, particularly in the presence of swelling, it is beneficial to elevate it above the level of the heart.

You should use heat if you are experiencing tightness, stiffness, or if you are still having soreness several days after a workout or race.

Such injuries may include:

  • Significant hamstring, calf, or hip flexor tightness
  • Knee stiffness
  • Muscle soreness >2 days following a hard workout or race

Apply a hot pack for 15-20 minutes or use a warm jet stream bath to provide greater blood flow. It is often helpful to stretch following the use of heat to assist with muscle elasticity.

Depending on the body region, an ice or hot pack may be difficult to apply. A bandage wrap can be helpful in securing the pack to the specific region of your body, such as the ankle. Make sure there is one layer, such as a towel or washcloth, between the skin and the ice or heat to protect your skin.

If the injury continues to stick around and does not get relief from the use of a hot or cold pack, stop by one of our clinics for a complimentary screen. There is a reason the body is signaling pain, and we can help you figure that out! To request a free injury screen at any of our locations, click the button below!

Schedule a Free Assessment

The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

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  1. Olivia Nelson

    I never knew that you should use ice for an acute injury. I guess it makes sense that ice would help reduce swelling in an injury. My husband just pulled his hamstring playing soccer so maybe we should look into getting him an ice wrap to help dull the pain.

  2. Dorothy Cohee

    Olivia, that will be helpful and assist with the healing. Have him stop by one of our clinics nearby you for a free injury screen so a therapist can give him some additional tips for proper healing before returning to soccer.

  3. Crystal

    I was awakened by a sharp excruciating pain between the knee and the hip, I n the middle. How can I prevent it from happening again?

  4. A

    I’m 2+ weeks in. I crawled day 1-3, but now I walk. Swelling & purple has subsided. I’m trying heat now.
    Almost totally Off pain meds.
    What excercise &/or pt do I need now?

  5. Kapil

    I am a runner. I have been experiencing tightness in left glute and left knee. Will heat treatment help.

  6. W williams. Md,facp

    Use to cycle 30min/d.presently ant quads pain diffuse/tendons ant get around w/o help-sit Q 5 mins because pain thigh,tendons. Pain help w nsaids.feel better lying down,get very sob c walking 50 ft-fan helps!I can no longer ride .?quad tendinitis,?inflammatory myopathy?
    No neuro problems!

  7. Jani

    I am an a runner,had a pulled muscle on my quad like two weeks ago,I treated it with ice and reduced the swelling to a certain point,it has been affecting my running at a high speed but when I’m just jogging it’s just fine,have been to clinics but all I get is medicine that doesn’t help, should I start using hot water or what

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