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When to Ice and When to Heat an Injury

Injured? When to Ice and When to Heat

You get out of bed like you normally do, but this time when you go to stand up, you feel a sharp pain in your lower back. Did you overdo it in Zumba yesterday or just sleep funny? Either way, it seriously hurts, and you want relief. You can't remember if it's better to grab an ice pack or a heating pad.

Both methods increase blood flow to the injured area and are beneficial in reducing pain as well as speeding the healing process. Heat increases circulation, which boosts the supply of oxygen to the area and accelerates the removal of waste products. Ice restricts blood flow, which reduces inflammation and numbs pain. To ice or to heat? This chart should help.

Ice Heat
How Long
Use ice pack, bag filled with ice cubes, or bag of frozen vegetables; apply no longer than 20 minutes Use heating pad, hot towels, or a hot bath; apply no longer than 20 minutes
  • If you've hurt yourself in the last 48 hours (sprained your ankle or hammered your thumb instead of the nail).
  • If the area is swollen, ice will decrease the inflammation around the injury, which will help control the pain.
  • After surgery, to reduce swelling, bleeding, and bruising.
  • For chronic injuries suffered by athletes such as shin splints and runner's knee; ice after the activity to reduce inflammation.
  • If you have chronic pain such as sore, stiff, nagging joint or muscle pain, heat brings new blood to the area to help loosen the tissues, which helps them relax.
  • For chronic conditions such as a tight hamstring, heat the area before you exercise to improve elasticity.
  • For chronic injuries that are aggravated by certain activities, heat beforehand to loosen the muscles.
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