Ice or Heat? Which is Right for My Injury?

Ice or Heat? Which is Right for My Injury?

Nov 14, 2016Tom Parker

Ice or Heat? Which is Right for My Injury?

 Physicians sometimes recommend ice for injuries and at other times tell you to keep an injury warm.  How do you know what is the right treatment for you?  “It is important to first pay attention to observations that you have made about your own injuries in order to make some sense of it,” says Body Helix CEO, Thomas Parker, MD. “These observations can direct your own injury management.” 

The basic rule of thumb when trying to decipher between ice and heat:


Acute injuries occur suddenly when playing or exercising. Sprained ankles, strained backs, and fractured hands are acute injuries. Signs of an acute injury include:
    • Sudden, severe pain
    • Swelling
    • Painful weight bearing
    • Elbow, wrist, hand or finger tenderness
    • Abnormal joint movement

If you have ever sprained your ankle or wrist, you suffered an acute injury and likely noticed some swelling and increased pain during the initial few days after the injury. Another observation of an acute injury is that your pain seemed to intensify first thing in the morning. This is because you have been inactive during rest and sleep, and the first activity of the day is likely to be the most painful. This “first activity of the day pain” is a good way to measure your recovery progress, as it should be diminishing over time as the body repairs itself.  An increase in morning pain, however, can be due to overuse on the day before.


Traditional acute injury management is Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (RICE).  During the acute injury phase, ice helps to control the swelling.  “It is impossible to know whether the reduction in pain is related to a direct effect of the ice or the reduction in swelling,” says Parker.  “But in either case, pain is reduced.”  In addition, athletes who play hurt, either with an acute injury or with a chronic problem, often apply ice after activity because it reduces the swelling and the pain.

“One thing to note,” Parker adds, “is that ice causes reduced blood flow and it may not be the best management for tissues that have a rich blood supply such as hamstring, thigh or calf muscles. Tendons and ligaments, though, do not have a rich blood supply so controlling the swelling likely outweighs the undesirable effect of reduced blood supply.”

 In addition to ice, you should also consider a compression sleeve or compression wrap as a form of acute injury management to help control swelling.

Types of Ice Treatment Include:

Take care when using ice and cold packs from a deep freeze, as they can cause ice burns quickly if used without care and proper protection.

    • Ice pack
    • Gel pack
    • Frozen vegetables



Chronic injuries are those that did not follow a pattern of expected improvement and seem to worsen or fail to improve. Signs of a chronic injury include:

    • Pain with use
    • Pain with exercise
    • Dull ache with rest

Heat increases blood flow and allows tissues to loosen up.  Athletes who have arthritis or other chronic conditions know that if they keep their injuries warm, they have less pain both with daily activities and during exercise. “Our muscles, tendons and ligaments are somewhat similar to a rubber band in terms of stretch and elasticity,” says Parker.  “Imagine putting a rubber band in the freezer and then pulling on the frozen band.

Of course - the elasticity is gone.  Then, put the rubber band in warm water and pull again.  The elasticity will have returned with the warmth.”  This example illustrates the importance of “warming up” before explosive activities and sports.

Heat treatments should be used for chronic conditions to help relax and loosen tissues and to stimulate blood flow to the area.  This increase in blood flow supplies oxygen and nutrients to reduce pain in joints and relaxes sore muscles, ligaments, and tendons. The warmth also decreases muscle spasms and can increase range of motion.  Body Helix compression sleeves and wraps provide both warmth and support for injury management of chronic conditions.

Types of heat treatment include:

The heat should be warm, not too hot, and should be maintained at a consistent temperature, if possible.

    • Electric or microwavable heating pad
    • Hot water bottle
    • Gel packs
    • Hot water baths


In summary, ice is useful with acute injury and with exacerbation of a chronic injury such as one that might be experienced by an athlete who plays injured.  Warmth is useful to loosen up joints with activity following inactivity or with injury rehabilitation to tissues with a rich blood supply, such as muscles.

Please contact your physician to know which course of treatment is best for you.  If you have any questions about how Body Helix compression products can help in the recovery of your injury, please don’t hesitate to contact us

Tom Parker, MD CEO BodyHelix

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