Ice or Heat Therapy – When to Use Which for an Injury?

Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

Medically reviewed by Dr. James Tan

How do you decide when to use a cold compress vs a warm compress? Are there certain types of injuries that can be made worse with heat treatment? How do you know which injuries are best treated with cold and which are better with warmth. It is not always intuitive but the right approach is crucial to healing. To help you reduce pain and promote healing, let’s look at when to apply ice and when to apply warmth to an injury.

What Is Heat Therapy?

To understand the fundamentals of treating injuries at home, it’s vital to understand why warmth is used. And, above all else, it’s crucial to remember that you don’t want to apply it during the first 48 hours after you’ve suffered an injury. Heat therapy is all about bringing more blood to an area, great as a preparation before doing sports like boulderingspinning or even deadlifts and squats. During the first couple of days after an injury, however, you don’t want to bring more blood to the area as it will worsen the inflammation.

After those initial 48 hours, it can be beneficial. It can work to reduce the stiffness in joints and prevent muscle spasms such as Nerve Entrapment Syndrome, that happen when muscles are tight.

What Is Cold Therapy?

While heat therapy shouldn’t be used for new injuries, cold therapy can be effective immediately. Cold can reduce pain by numbing the area while reducing swelling, inflammation, and bleeding. Though cold therapy is not as comfortable and soothing, it is a powerful tool when used correctly.

Using Ice or Heat Treatment for Back Pain

Do you experience back pain when you get home from work? Besides visiting a Chiropractor to treat your back pain, another way is to use ice or heat. When it comes to new injuries and pain that comes on suddenly, reach for ice. Take it easy for up to 72 hours while you rest and apply cold compresses. Lie in bed as much as possible during these first few days to completely remove the stress from your back.

After the first three days following your injury, it’s time to get moving again. You can start using heat to reduce the soreness and stuffiness. If you have a bathtub at home, adding warm baths to your routine or warm compresses is helpful too. This method works well for aches in the foot and also hip discomfort from ill-fitting shoes.

How to Use Heat Treatment

There are a few different types of heat treatment available. Heat pads are an easy solution and simple to apply. The only potential issue with them is ensuring they aren’t too hot. This is especially important if you have diabetes or nerve damage. Remember, it should never hurt to touch it.

You can always create a DIY pad by simply using a towel dampened in warm water. Simply get the towel wet with warm (but not uncomfortably hot) water. Make sure your towel isn’t dripping water or hot enough to burn you, then place it over the affected area.

How to Use Ice Treatment

Applying ice is a simple at-home pain treatment but it’s essential to proceed with care. You can take a towel dampened with cold water, put it in the freezer for 15 minutes, and then apply it to the area of pain. Alternatively, you can put ice into a small plastic sealable bag and then partially fill it with water. Wrap that bag with a damp towel then apply it to the injured area.

While ice treatments can be uncomfortable, it’s vital to be mindful about not pushing it too far. Limit the ice treatments to 20 minutes and always take a break of at least 30 minutes between ice treatments.

Once the first two to three days have passed, you can start using warm compresses to boost blood flow and help the healing process.

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About The Author

dr james tan

Dr James Tan Chung Hui

Dr James Tan is a skilled orthopaedic surgeon at Quantum Orthopaedics who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine in Singapore. Apart from partnering with the industry to introduce various treatment techniques, Dr Tan has treated athletes from the Singapore National Teams and professional footballers from the Singapore Premier League and the Young Lions.

Dr Tan specialises in treating sports injuries of the knee, shoulder and elbow joints, as well as cartilage and meniscus surgery. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.

Qualifications and Achievements
MBBS - National University of Singapore (NUS), Faculty of Medicine
Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (MRCS)
MMed - Master of Medicine in Orthopaedic Surgery (NUS)
Fellow of Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh)
Adjunct Assistant Professor | NUS, LKC
Senior Consultant Orthopaedic Surgery, Sports and Exercise Medicine
Head of Department | Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Centre
Principal Investigator of Tissue Engineering
National Medical Research Council grants
Collaboration with Scientists at NTU, TUM, A*Star, Osteopore & Trendlines Medical Singapore


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