Heat or Ice?

Heat or Ice

This is one of the most asked questions in rehab centers. It is an important question that can be very confusing sometimes. We have simplified it here for you.

It is generally recommended to use ice during the first 24-48 hours after an injury has occurred. Ice will decrease pain and help reduce swelling in the injured area. The “RICE” principle (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) can be incorporated with this. Ice should be used if there is still pain after the initial 24-48 hours of the injury.

To ice the injured area, fill a plastic bag about half full of ice and squeeze out as much of the air in the bag as possible. Seal the bag shut. Place the bag of ice over the injured area. Try to overlap the injured area to make sure the whole area is covered.

There are three phases the body goes through when using ice. At first the ice may feel like it stings or burns, but after a couple minutes it will change to an aching sensation. After a couple more minutes it will feel numb.

The ice should be left on the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes. This can be repeated every 2 hours if needed. The ice can be put directly on the skin, which will give the best results. If this is not tolerable, cover the skin with a damp paper towel and replace the ice pack for the remainder of the time.

Heat on the other hand, can be used 48 hours after an injury has occurred. Heat can produce a relaxation effect that can result in a reduction of muscle guarding. This is turn will help decrease stiffness. Heat also increases the blood flow to the injured area to promote the healing process.

Moist heat is the best form of heat to use. This is because the body can “absorb” the heat more effectively than a regular electric heating pad. There are different ways to do this. One way is to use a wet/dry electric heating pad, following the manufacturer’s directions for moist heat. Another method of moist heat is a heat pack that can be heated in the microwave. If you don’t have one of these heat packs or can’t afford to buy one, there is another option. Take a bath towel and soak it in tolerable hot water, wring out most of the water and cover the injured area. When the towel starts to cool, it can be replaced with another towel that has been soaked in hot water.

The heat can be left on the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes. This can be repeated with a minimum of 2 hours between heat treatments so that normal blood circulation can resume.

So to review, ice should be used:

The first 24-48 hours after an injury has occurred along with the RICE principle.

  • To reduce swelling in an area
  • To reduce pain

And heat should be used:

  • 48 hours after an injury has occurred
  • to decrease stiffness in the injured area

If pain or discomfort last longer than 1 to 2 weeks, you should seek medical attention if you haven’t already.