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Should you use ice or heat for pain?

Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital October 15, 2015 General Wellness

Ice packs and heating pads are two of the most commonly-used remedies for sports injuries, but when you’re injured, which of the two is better—ice or heat?

“With a fresh injury, within the first day or two, I would definitely say ice is the best option,” says Kris Heintzelman, physical therapist at Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital. “I use ice on patients much more than I use heat because of its versatility.”

Although heat can seem like the more comforting and soothing option, especially when you’re in pain, ice is a better option for immediate treatment of injuries like sprains or strains, after a tough workout, or on a pulled muscle. Ice will limit the body’s response to your injury by minimizing pain, inflammation, and swelling, reducing muscle spasms, and numbing the affected area.

To ensure you’re getting all of these benefits, you don’t need an ice pack from a grocery store. It’s true that something as simple as a bag of frozen vegetables, a plastic bag of ice, or some ice wrapped in a wet towel will do the trick.

Regardless of what you use, remember never to place ice directly on an injury, and not to keep ice on the injury for longer than 20 minute intervals. There is little benefit to having it on longer, and you may be putting yourself at risk for damaging your skin.

Although ice is better for fresh injuries, Heintzelman says there is a time when heat is an appropriate treatment.

“If you put heat on something that’s inflamed, it only gets angrier, which is why we don’t recommend it for fresh injuries, but heat is a better option for chronic pain issues or to make muscles more pliable for stretching,” he explains.

Heintzelman says heating pads or packs can be used later in the injury to relieve pain and stiffness when swelling and inflammation have gone down, and for common chronic pain issues like low back pain or muscle tightness prior to a workout. Arthritis sufferers can also benefit from heat therapy, as heat can help alleviate joint pain.

If you’re not sure whether ice or heat is best for your injury, play it safe.

“If you suffer an injury, even if it seems minor, call your physician and ask what is the best way to treat it,” says Heintzelman. “Make sure that you’re treating the issue appropriately so that you’re not hindering your recovery.”

At Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital, we know sports injuries affect athletes of every age and ability. From sports physical therapy for the weekend warrior to rehabilitation for the pro athlete, our sports injury program strives to heal complex sports injuries and limit the likelihood of reinjury. Visit our website to learn more about our sports injury rehab program.