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Heat versus ice for treatment of an injury

Following an injury, you may have pain and swelling – but how do you know which is the best treatment for a fresh injury, such as an ankle sprain?

You can make the right choice for treatment by understanding the effects of both heat and ice. Ice is beneficial initially because, when applied to the injured area, the blood vessels constrict and decrease blood flow, thus controlling swelling. Keeping this swelling down is one of the keys to a quick recovery. A general rule is to apply ice to a new injury for at least the first 72 hours. Not only will this help control swelling, but ice can also greatly reduce pain at the injury site. Ice should be applied for 15-20 minutes at a time by using a gel pack, Ziploc bag of ice, bag of frozen vegetables, or simply by placing some ice in a towel.

Heat has the opposite effect of cold, in that it increases the amount of blood flow to the area. The added blood flow helps the healing process by removing unwanted fluid from the injured area. The best time to use heat is after the first 72 hours of an injury, but only if there is minimal swelling and the area is no longer warm in comparison to the surrounding tissue. Heat, as with ice, should be applied for about 15-20 minutes at a time. The easiest way to use moist heat at home is by taking a warm bath or shower. However, you can also put damp towels in the microwave for about two minutes or simply place a damp towel between a heating pad and your skin. Always add a layer of cloth between your skin and the heat if the heat pack gets too hot.

It is important to remember that if an injury shows signs of swelling, inflammation, or redness, ice should be used. If the swelling or pain is severe or persists, see your doctor for further medical care.

For more information about this or other sports medicine topics, call the Aurora Sports Medicine Hotline™ at 414-219-7776 or 800-219-7776.