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How to know when to Ice vs. Heat an injury

Follow these guidelines to help you decide if you should be using ice or heat to treat your injury at home:

Use ICE if:

  • there is an abundance of inflammation or swelling that needs to be reduced
  • the affected area is red, hot, and swollen
  • the injury started recently (less than a week or two)
  • there is a pulsating or throbbing associated with the pain
  • anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil improves your pain
  • you are sore after exercising and prefer ice over heat
  • you do not typically have any adverse effects by using ice (example: worse pain)

Use HEAT if:

  • you need to loosen up tight muscles and stiff joints
  • you are about to perform stretching exercises
  • you are looking to increase blood flow to encourage healing
  • your pain is described as a dull ache
  • the injury is no longer fresh (over a week or two)
  • you are sore after exercising and prefer heat over ice (see my post on overdoing it with rehab exercisesHow do I know if I’m overdoing it with my rehab exercises?
  • you do not typically have any adverse effects by using heat (example: worse pain)

In my practice, I try to move from ice to heat as quickly as possible with clinical justification and keeping my patients as comfortable as possible.  I encourage active pain free motion as much as possible in the early (acute) phase, which can also help clear inflammation quicker.

I normally limit icing to 10-15 minutes per area and heating to 20-30 minutes, and don’t repeat until after the tissue has returned to it’s baseline temperature.

If neither ice or heat have any effect on your symptoms, consult with your medical practitioner for additional options you can use at home. (example medication, therapeutic positioning, therapeutic taping, activity modification, exercises, etc.)

Comment below if you found this helpful.