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Ice vs heat: What to apply immediately after an injury

When to use ice

Ice treatments are often used to treat acute, sudden injuries that occur due to an accident, such as falling off a bicycle. If you have suffered from an injury within the last 48 hours and the affected area has become swollen, apply an ice pack to the area to minimize swelling, reduce bleeding, and to help reduce pain and muscle spasms.

Ice is highly effective for treating foot and ankle sprains, fractures, broken toes, and other injuries that may occur in your lower extremities. In some cases, ice can even be used to treat overuse injuries in athletes, and helps reduce inflammation. According to Cedric Bryant, PhD, an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, intense workouts can often result in microscopic tears to muscle tissue and inflammation, which can be relieved through ice treatment. If you’re able to apply ice to an injury as soon as it happens, you may be able to prevent the injury from worsening while relieving pain at the same time.

If you’re an athlete, keep a bag of frozen peas, corn, or berries in your freezer at all times so you can grab the pack at a moment’s notice immediately following an injury. You can also make an ice pack by placing ice cubes in a plastic zipper storage bag. When treating an injury, move the ice pack around frequently to avoid ice burns, and treat the affected area for no more than 30 minutes at a time. Remove the ice pack immediately if your injury turns red or bright pink in color, and contact your podiatrist immediately to seek further treatment and evaluation.

When to use heat

Heat treatments are best used to help relax and loosen muscles and tissues, and can help stimulate blood flow in a specific area. In most cases, heat is used to treat overuse injuries in athletes prior to physical activities and sports events. According to Carol E Torgan, PhD, from the American College of Sports Medicine, heat can help accelerate the muscle-repair process if you practice treatment 48 hours after an intense workout.

Never use heat immediately following physical activities, and never apply heat to an acute injury, since heat will draw more blood to the affected area and worsen swelling.

Heat treatments should only be used for a limited time to avoid burning the affected area, and can be accomplished through the use of a heating pad or hot towel.

Additional precautions when using ice or heat

  • Do not use ice packs prior to engaging in sports or physical activities.
  • Do not use heat packs immediately following sports or physical activities.
  • Do not use ice or heat treatment if you have diabetes.
  • Do not use ice or heat treatment on injuries that have been infected.
  • Do not use ice or heat treatment on areas of the body with poor circulation.

Have you recently suffered from a foot or ankle injury? Call Kansas City Foot Specialists to schedule an evaluation at (913) 338-4440, or request an appointment online so we can determine the cause of your injury and get you back on your feet.