Sports Injury? Do I use Heat or Ice?

Heat or Ice

sports injury

Today I want to talk to you about… Ice or heat?

This is something I get lots of questions about when it comes to an injury and what works best.

Most people know that applying ice or heat to an injury can help to speed up recovery. However, in my experience, many people don’t know how, why or even when to use ice or heat.

This is extremely important due to the fact that applying the wrong one can DELAY recovery.

Have you ever taken a hot bath after suffering an ankle sprain and, although it feels great right after you get out, it hurts and swells much worse the next day? The reason behind this is also the reason we apply ice and NOT heat after a new injury.

If you suffer an injury, like a muscle strain or ligament sprain, for example, that area normally swells, often quite significantly depending upon the severity of the injury.

But don’t worry! This is normal. It’s the body’s way of protecting the area and making sure that it heals.

The body does normally go a bit overboard, swelling much more than is necessary. Better safe than sorry right? The problem with extended swelling is that it can eventually cause the muscles and joints to become very stiff, tight, painful, and WEAK!

In the case of swelling, ice is better to apply than heat. At least for the first three days anyway.

Icing for sports injury:

When you place ice onto a swollen, injured area, it causes the veins to constrict or narrow. Veins are just like little pipes, controlling the flow of blood around your body. When the veins are cold, the flow of blood is reduced to that area, ultimately reducing the swelling and thus speeding up the recovery.

Cold also reduces your level of pain as well.

How to ice properly…

How to:

It’s best to apply ice for the first 3 days after an injury to reduce the swelling. It’s important to leave the ice on for a MAXIMUM of 15 minutes. Icing any longer than this can sometimes lead to even more swelling.

And don’t forget, never apply directly to your skin!! This is likely to BURN your skin. Instead, place the ice in a damp towel and then apply the towel to the injured area.

DON’T apply the ice to the area again if the injured area is still cold. Leave at least an hour in between each time that you ice the area. It’s best to try and ice three times a day.

Other factors:

There are other components that can help to reduce the swelling too:

Compression of the injured area with an elastic bandage can help to reduce the swelling. Remember, don’t wrap it too tight!  Usually, about 50% pull is enough for when you’re out and about and busy, but if you’re home and elevated or planning on leaving it on during the night only pull about 10-20%.  Then you want to overlap the straps by about 50%

Signs that the bandage is too tight:

  • Pins and needles
  • Numbness and tingling in the injured area
  • The area below the bandage starting to swell

If this happens, loosen it up!

Elevation of the area above the heart while icing can speed up recovery as well.

Resting the area, of course, can limit the chances of further trauma/ delayed recovery. Would you drive a car with a mechanical problem? Running on an injured leg is the same!

watch this video to find out if you are ready to return to sports or not after your injury. Click Here.

Heat for sports injury:

Unlike ice, heat causes your veins to dilate or become wider. Due to the expanded diameter, more blood flow can rush to the area.

That’s exactly the reason that you may feel much worse after soaking in a hot bath directly after being injured.

When the swelling has subsided, usually three or more days after the injury, the muscles that have rested can be fairly tight and sore. Heat can help to loosen those muscles before you return to exercising again.

How to:

You could use a hot water bottle (not too hot that it burns you, but tolerable). Leave the heat on the area no longer than 15 minutes, checking periodically to make sure that your skin isn’t getting too red.

Remember, similar to icing, leave at least an hour between each time that you apply heat. If you go to apply heat again and see that the area is still red and hot, allow more time for it to return to normal color before applying more heat.

I hope this helps clear up any confusion of what should be done following an injury and allows you to get back to your activities more quickly!

For more information on sports injuries, click below to check out my free report:


Nick Hunter, PT, DPT

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