When to Ice or Heat an Injury

Ice packs and heat pads are among the most commonly used treatments in orthopedics. So which one is the right one to use for your injury?

Ice treatment is most commonly used for acute injuries. If you have a recent injury (within the last 48 hours) where swelling is a problem, you should be using an ice treatment. Ice packs can help minimize swelling around the injury, reduce bleeding into the tissues, and reduce muscle spasms and pain. Ice packs are often used after injuries such as ankle sprains.

Ice treatment may also be used for chronic conditions, such as an overuse injury in athletes. In this case, ice the injured area after activity to help control inflammation. Avoid icing a chronic injury before activity.

You can make ice packs with ice cubes in a plastic bag or wrap them in a towel; a pack of frozen peas is also ideal and can go in and out of the freezer. When applying ice directly on an injury, keep the pack moving to avoid ice burns. Remove the pack immediately if the injury appears bright pink or red.

Avoid using ice packs around the front or side of the neck.

Heat treatments should be used for chronic conditions to help relax and loosen tissues and to stimulate blood flow to the area. Use heat treatments for chronic conditions before participating in activities.

Do not use heat treatments after activity, and do not use heat after an acute injury.

Heating tissues can be accomplished using a heating pad or even a hot, wet towel. When using heat treatments, be very careful to use a moderate heat for a limited time to avoid burns. Never leave heating pads or towels on for extended periods of time or while sleeping.

Other Precautions
Don’t use cold or heat packs:

  • Over areas of skin that are in poor condition
  • Over areas of skin with poor sensation to heat or cold
  • Over areas of the body with known poor circulation
  • Without discussing with your doctor the safe use of ice and heat, especially for those with diabetes
  • In the presence of infection

If you are dealing with an old or current injury and it is not responding to home treatments, call our specialists at Black Hills Orthopedic & Spine Center at (605) 341-1414.