When Is Ice and Heat Therapy the Best Treatment?

Nov 01, 2022

When Is Ice and Heat Therapy the Best Treatment?

A sports injury may need physical therapy, bracing, oral medications, corticosteroid injections, or even surgery. However, for many minor injuries, ice and heat therapy is the best treatment.

Sports injuries can often benefit from hot and/or cold treatment to relieve pain and swelling and help you heal more quickly. In fact, there are cases when ice and heat therapies are the best treatments for your injury.

At Advanced Orthopedics & Sports Medicine (AOSM), with locations in Union City and Dyersburg, Tennessee, Dr. Michael Calfee, Paxton Sisson PA-C, and the rest of our skilled team can help determine if hot or cold treatments will be useful in treating your sports injury.

Treating sports injuries with ice and heat

Ice and heat can both be used for treating sports injuries. Knowing which injuries will respond best to which treatment, and when to alternate between treatments, is critical to the effectiveness of these therapies.

Ice therapy

Ice is normally used when the injury is acute, meaning it’s less than six weeks old. The swelling and pain is happening in response to the recent injury.

Icing constricts blood vessels, which reduces swelling and bruising and sends cold signals along the same nerve pathways as pain signals, helping dampen pain sensations. You can use ice up to once an hour to treat acute pain.

You don’t have to use actual ice; in fact, something cold that molds itself around the joint or other body part is better. This can be a gel pack or a bag of frozen peas. 

Prolonged use of cold therapy can cause frostbite, so keep ice packs on for only 20 minutes at most, and don’t apply directly to bare skin; use a towel or cloth as a barrier.

Don’t use ice without medical supervision if the injury involves a nerve, if you have vascular disease, or if the skin is broken, extremely thin, burnt, or otherwise compromised. 

Heat therapy

Heat is better for deep muscle pain and stiffness. Heat therapy increases blood flow and may also attract nutrients to the area of the injury, helping to boost your body’s natural healing properties.

Dry heat can be applied using a heat pack, a rice-filled sock, or a heating pad. If using this sort of direct application, create a barrier with a towel or clothing to prevent burns. Keep sessions to 15-20 minutes before breaking for an hour.

Moist heat can be applied using hot, fully damp towels, or by using a hot bath. Make sure you use a barrier such as a dry towel with a plastic bag over it to prevent burns, and check water in a bath to ensure it isn’t scalding. You can use moist heat for an hour or more.

Don’t use heat therapy without medical supervision if you have diabetes, vascular disease, deep vein thrombosis, dermatitis, or multiple sclerosis.

In some cases, alternating heat and ice therapy may be appropriate for you. Our team works with you to determine the best type(s) of treatment for your specific condition. 

Are you suffering from a sports injury? We can help. To get in touch, call the AOSM location closest to you, or book an appointment online.