Ice vs. Heat

Written by: Dr. Stephanie Wilfong, DPT

Ice or heat, which is better? This is one of my most frequently asked questions in the clinic. As a general rule, I suggest ice for an acute injury and heat for a chronic injury.

An acute injury is an injury that just occurred. These may include ankle sprains or pain following an intense workout. It is usually accompanied by swelling, redness, bruising, and/ or warmth. Ice works to constrict blood vessels and blood flow to the area. This helps to reduce swelling and discomfort. Ice should be applied as soon after the injury as possible. The ice pack can be kept in place for up to 20 minutes, removing it once you feel numbness. Be sure to place a thin towel between the ice and your skin to protect your skin. Ice can be reapplied every few hours, as needed, and is most beneficial the first 2-3 days following injury.

Heat is a great tool for a chronic injury (injuries that have existed for a long time). These types of injuries may include joint stiffness or arthritis. Heat works to allow our blood vessels to expand, bringing more blood flow to the area. This can work to improve tissue elasticity, relax stiffness, and reduce pain. As with ice, be sure to place at least one layer between the hot pack and your skin to protect your skin. Heat can be applied for up to 20 minutes at a time. Do not apply heat or ice to an area where your sensation is not intact, as you may not realize if the heat is too hot or the ice too cold.

So, what happens if you apply heat to an acute injury? This can increase blood flow to the area, which increases the inflammation and irritation in the area. That reaction may then extend your healing time.

Don't hesitate to ask if you have any further questions about heat or ice in relation to your specific injury. Purcellville Orthopedic Physical Therapy is here to help in any way we can. Visit our site for more information