Every year, about the time when the fall sports season is in full swing, I often get the question of whether it is better to use ice or heat for an injury. Ice packs and heating pads are commonly used to treat sprains and chronic injuries. Here is how I counsel my patients.
Ice used in the first 48 hours after injury can reduce swelling, which will in turn decrease pain.
Icing also helps chronic conditions such as tennis elbow or patellar tendonitis. The icing should occur after the activity to help control inflammation.
HOW TO APPLY ICE
Apply ice treatments for no longer than 20 minutes at a time, using a towel to protect the skin from direct contact with the ice. Too much ice can cause frostbite. More ice does not necessarily mean more relief.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends initial treatment of stable ankle sprains with rest, ice, gentle compression and elevation (RICE). Protecting the ankle with bracing or a walking boot is important, therefore, I recommend PRICE (protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation) to my patients. Icing an ankle sprain early has been shown to facilitate an earlier return to sports participation by speeding the first phase of recovery.
Heat can be used to treat chronic conditions. Heating the affected extremity can help loosen tissues and stimulate blood flow to an area to encourage healing. For chronic overuse activities, use heat before participating in activities.