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When to Use Ice vs. Heat

If you’ve ever sprained your ankle, or gotten any sort of manageable injury that doesn’t require a hospital visit, the first thing you’ve probably done is get a bag of ice or something equally cold to place on wherever it seems to be hurting. You’ve probably also gotten advice on taking a hot bath, or soaking in hot water as well. How do you know when it is proper to use ice vs heat?

The basic rule is that ice is used to help with injuries while heat is used to help with muscle ache relief.

ICE – People used to mistakenly believe that ice is helpful because it decreases inflammation and prevents the injury from “getting worse.” However, these days, it is understood that ice is more of a mild treatment to aid in lessening the pain associated with inflammation. When an injury becomes inflamed, it is actually a natural and necessary part of the healing process. If you over-ice, you are most likely causing more damage and hampering the healing process (making your recovery slower.) Ice is also more likely used for new injuries that are less than 6 weeks old. Some examples are initial sprains, gout flare-ups, acute tendinitis, or headaches.

HEAT – Heat is used to help with muscle pain, chronic pain (pain that is older than 6 weeks) and stress/stress related issues. A soothing warm bath can be helpful for people who have back or neck pains as it helps relax any stiff joints or tight muscles. When an injury has progressed from inflammation to stiffness, heat is a good way to help heal faster. Some other examples of when to use heat are for arthritis, tendinosis (chronic stiffness and pain in tendons), or general muscle aches.

Ice is BAD for muscle tension and spasms and heat is BAD for inflammation. The wrong application will make the problem twice as bad, so always be careful to use the right treatment for your injury.

If your injury is not getting better with home therapy, make sure to see a podiatrist to prevent your injury for healing improperly, or getting worse. Dr. Kenneth R. Wilhelm of Clifton Foot & Ankle has been practicing in the Centreville, VA area for over seventeen years. If you have any questions call us at 703-996-3000 or make an appointment here.

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