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

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’s 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.

Here is your guide to successfully treating everyday injuries at home with ice and heat. 

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. Warmth therapy is all about bringing more blood to an area, great as a preparation before doing sports like bouldering, spinning 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.

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.

Should I Use Ice or Heat for Swelling?

If you have an acute injury, you can use ice to minimise the swelling. This is particularly important during the first couple of days after your injury from strenuous exercise. After day two, you can move on to using warmth to help the healing process and increase your blood flow. 

It is also recommended to use cold treatment for the initial stages of Tennis Elbow or Golfer’s Elbow to reduce inflammation. If cold compress doesn’t work, you might want to seek tennis elbow treatment at our orthopaedic clinic in Singapore or find out more about our golfer’s elbow treatment sessions.

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 came 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 warmth to reduce the soreness and stuffiness. If you have a bathtub at home, adding warm baths to your routine of warm compresses is helpful too. This method works well for aches in the foot and also hip discomfort from ill-fitting shoes.

Read more: Difference between Physiotherapy and Orthopaedic Surgery

Read more: The Difference Between Osteopaths, Chiropractors and Physiotherapists

Should I Use Ice or Heat Treatment for Pulled Muscles?

When you have a new injury or pain that comes on suddenly, look to the RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) method. Following the diligent approach to resting, icing, applying compression, and elevating the injured part.

It can be difficult to know for sure if you’ve pulled a muscle so play it safe. Stick with this RICE method for your first 48 hours. If the pain is intense, it’s time for an emergency doctor’s visit. On the other hand, if you find that rest makes it feel better and you can keep the pain managed with RICE, keep at it for a couple of days.

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

To prevent pulling your muscles when doing strenuous activities like HIIT workouts or F45, always drink lots of water and do stretches.

Should I Treat a Sprained Ankle with Ice or Heat Therapy?

While the RICE method is effective for sprained ankle treatment and tendon injuries, you need to be completely certain that you have a sprain and not a break. In the case of a broken ankle, it is critical to see a doctor. Pay close attention to the pain and trust your instinct. If the pain is intense or you have severe swelling, it’s time for an emergency visit to the hospital.

Feeling unsure if it is a sprain or break? If you have any doubt, listen to your instincts and get the injury checked. It’s always better to play it safe.

If you are confident that it’s just a sprain, consistently rest, ice, wrap, and elevate your ankle. This way, your bruises can heal more quickly. Monitor to make sure the swelling and pain are consistently getting better with time. If not, get to the doctor’s office. This method also works for sprains in the wrist.

Should I Be Using Heat or Ice Treatment for Neck Pain?

When you have a new injury that comes on suddenly, look to the RICE method. Follow the diligent approach to resting, icing, applying compression, and elevating the injured part for at least two days.

If you have chronic neck pain, look to heat therapy for relief. Likewise, if it’s a general soreness rather than an acute pain, it will help treat a wider area of muscle soreness.

Related article: How to Differentiate Between Neck and Shoulder Pain

Should I Use Ice or Heat for Shoulder Pain?

Shoulder mobility is one of the reasons you may have shoulder pain. For an acute or sudden shoulder injury, stick with the RICE technique for your first 48 hours. Pay attention to the swelling and make sure it’s lessening with time. After those first two days, move to heat therapy. Like neck pain, chronic shoulder pain can also be treated. It’s also important to talk to a doctor about long-term shoulder pain management techniques.

Sometimes, your injury isn’t minor as you might think. It could very possibly be a shoulder dislocation or rotator cuff tear. It is best that you consult a doctor if you are unsure.

Should I Use Ice or Heat for Knee Pain?

When you are dealing with knee injuries such as ACL tear or a torn meniscus, it’s essential to assess the situation. Is the pain sudden and severe? If it is painful but gets better with the RICE method, continue on this path for two to three days. If the pain is intense and sudden, get to the emergency room. A doctor will take an MRI to determine the issue that is causing you pain.

If you are dealing with chronic knee pain, look to heat therapy to boost blood flow. If you’re dealing with arthritis, regular heat treatment can make a real difference. It is vital to talk to a healthcare professional, however, to fully examine you and assess your pain. Remember, regardless of your age and health conditions, you don’t just have to live with pain. There are always solutions to manage knee pain. Alternatively, check out our ACL tear pain treatment or torn meniscus treatment page if you would like to seek treatment with us at Ray of Health.

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 true 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 play 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.

Looking for a Trustworthy Orthopaedic Doctor in Singapore?

There is no reason to live with pain another day! If you have any questions or seeking orthopaedic treatment in Singapore. Schedule an appointment today.

If you’d like to find us directly, visit one of our clinics below:

Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre

3 Mount Elizabeth, #13-14

Singapore 228510

Mount Alvernia Hospital

820 Thomson Road

Medical Centre D #05-60

Singapore 574623

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Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

About the Author

Dr James Tan is a highly skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.

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