It’s an age-old question to which everyone seems to have an answer: “Should I use ice or heat to help me with this injury?”
When a part of the body is injured, the body produces what we know as inflammation–the body’s natural way of protecting and healing the injured tissue. The body isn’t concerned with whether this therapy will “hurt” or work quickly–it simply seeks to protect itself from both new (or “acute”) injuries or older, recurring (“chronic”) injuries.
Heat and ice produce two different effects when used, and thusly have different applications when it comes to inflammation and injury repair.
Cryotherapy, or the use of ice, is used to ward off inflammation if it hasn’t happened yet, or decrease it if it has. This also serves to reduce pain. When you use an ice pack or other form of cold therapy, it causes the small blood vessels in the area to constrict and therefore reduce blood flow, which decreases the rate of inflammation. This helps to reduce the pain and swelling in situations like ankle sprain, a case in which it usually is important to the patient that they be able to preserve their mobility.
When we tear a ligament, tendon or other aspect of a muscle, the body responds by sending masses of blood (and other compounds that help fight the injury) to the area. It has been well documented that it is critical during the first 48 hours of such an injury to apply cryotherapy to the area, as it helps preserve range of motion and allows the body to recover faster. Try applying ice for 15- to 20-minute periods, six to eight times a day, for the first two days. (Don’t worry; this won’t “stop” the body from being able to deliver what the injury needs.)
If you have pain due to chronic overuse, like carpal tunnel syndrome, ice may also help with inflammation in such situations; just be sure to ice following the activity, not before it.
Heat therapy causes the opposite effect: vasodilation, or opening up the blood vessels more. This is perfect for situations in which we want to increase blood flow to an area–for example, before a sporting event or before a situation in which a chronically overused area will be used again. It also can be used to relieve pain, as in hot tub use.