Fact or Myth: Cold Therapy for Sudden Injury, Heat Therapy for Chronic Pain?

This is a FACT.

Knowing when to use cold therapy and when to use heat therapy often gets confused, so let’s briefly refresh our hot/cold IQ.

When to Use Cold

You want to apply ice or a cold compress to a sudden injury, such as a sprain, strain, or bruise, when swelling and inflammation are high. The cold narrows blood vessels and slows blood flow to the area, thereby helping to alleviate swelling, inflammation, and pain. Elevation is also helpful because it likewise reduces swelling.

It’s best to follow RICE guidelines upon injury.

R est

I ce

C ompression

E levation

Use ice for the first 48 to 72 hours to help ease the pain and decrease the likelihood of secondary tissue damage. Always keep a barrier between your skin and the ice pack. Ice should be applied no more than 20 minutes at a time, with at least a 10-minute rest between icing.

When to Use Heat

Heat should be used for chronic injuries or pain that doesn’t involve swelling. Heat directs blood flow to the area, flooding it with nutrients and oxygen that help to relax muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Heat therapy helps to reduce muscle spasms and improve flexibility and range of motion.

Heat therapy works best with an electric heating pad, hot water bottle, gel packs, or even a hot bath. As with cold therapy, always put a barrier between your skin and the heat and only apply for 20 minutes at a time.

Depending on the injury, physical therapists and trainers also recommend switching it up between cold therapy and heat therapy for 20 minutes at a time.