Injury Treatment: When to Use Ice or Heat

Injury Treatment: When to Use Ice or Heat

Have you ever gotten in your car, reached for your seat belt and tweaked your neck? I have — and it’s basically the lamest way ever to injure yourself. To make matters worse, I tried to ignore my injury out of sheer embarrassment. The pain and inability to turn my head in either direction likely would have been diminished had I just put some ice on it. Or should that be heat? I can never remember, so I chose neither and suffered for nearly a week, using a fictitious story about lifting too hard at the gym as my cover.

Whether you’ve pulled a muscle going about your normal every day activities, tripped over a barbell and sprained your ankle or have back pain that flares up seemingly out of nowhere, aches, pains and injuries are common. The key is how you treat them, which often begins with an understanding of when to choose ice versus heat the moment pain strikes.

“Ice has an anti-inflammatory effect by decreasing blood flow to an acutely injured area,” says Naresh Rao, DO, FAOASM, an osteopathic sports medicine physician who serves as the head physician for the USA men’s water polo team and was on Team USA’s sports medicine team for the 2016 Summer Olympics. “Ice is great for pain associated with inflammation and works best if the injury is superficial enough to the skin so the cold can have an effect. Conversely, heat has a muscle-relaxing effect by increasing blood flow to a chronically injured area. Heat is great for stiff muscles and muscle spasms and can be used to help increase flexibility in stiff or arthritic joints.”

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