When To Use Ice Versus Heat For Workout Injuries, Because You Deserve To Recover As Quickly As Possible

Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark applies an icepack to her neck during a break against Anna Tatishvili of Georgia in their second round women's singles match on day three of the 2012 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 18, 2012. Wozniacki won 6-1, 7-6. IMAGE STRICTLY RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE AFP PHOTO / GREG WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images

When you hurt yourself, one of the best ways to heal and get back to your workout routine is knowing when to use ice versus heat for an injury, but it can sometimes be unclear which one to use to get better as quickly as possible. Nothing is more frustrating or disappointing than an injury when you're trying to stick with an exercise regimen. One day you're going for a run, and the next second you've landed flat on your face. It happens.

Your injury may not feel like a very discouraging setback, but even if it's something minor, the best way to heal is to be patient, rest, and use ice and heat effectively. However, it can sometimes be confusing to know whether to use ice or heat and how to use them properly to make your recovery time as short as possible. Plus, if you're in pain, it may feel even more difficult to think clearly about what your body needs. 

Remember though, if you're truly severely injured and suspect you have anything worse than a little muscle tweak, go to the doctor. If you've potentially broken a bone or have a cut that needs stitching, no amount of ice, heat, or ibuprofen will help you. If your injury truly is something minimal, and you want it to heal fast, it's important to first clear up some common confusions about what you should do to heal those aches and pains by using ice and heat effectively. For help, I turned to Dr. Kathryn Fox and Dr. Alison Adamczyk, two chiropractors and owners of The Spinal Connection in San Diego, CA. According to Fox and Adamczyk in an email to Bustle, patients frequently ask if they should use ice or heat when experiencing pain. Here are there tips for when to use ice and when to use heat after you've been injured.

When To Use Ice

1. You Just Injured Yourself 

The purpose of ice is to reduce inflammation and minimize damage at the time of injury. Ice is your best friend immediately following any kind of minor injury. Fox and Adamczyk recommend ice for acute injuries — those injuries that are less than 72 hours old, and where redness, swelling and/or sharp, stabby-jabby type pain is being experienced.

You can use an ice pack (it's a great idea to store one in your freezer for these kinds of incidents) or just a plastic bag with ice cubes in it. Protect your skin by putting some kind of barrier between the ice pack and you, such as a towel, so you don't get an ice burn. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, you should ice the injury for 15 to 20 minutes max. You'll want to ice the area on and off throughout the day, letting the area rest for 45 minutes or more between icing sessions. Continue icing regularly in the days following the injury until it heals.

2. The Injured Area Is Inflamed

As long as the site of injury is inflamed, keep using ice treatment. According to Fox and Adamczyk, where there is pain, there is inflammation and "ice is best to put out the fire." You can usually tell if the area is inflamed by lightly pressing on it (it will feel a bit squishy) or by comparing it to what it should look like normally. For example, if your left ankle hurts, and it looks bigger than your right ankle, the area still has inflammation. 

You can also reduce inflammation by taking NSAIDs, aka over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin. You'll want to continue your icing routine until the inflammation disappears, but if you still have an injury after a week or so of rest and treatment, seek medical help.

3. You Just Worked Out

You may be able to still exercise with your injury, depending on where it is. For example, if you fell and landed on your wrist the wrong way, you'd still be able to go for a run. But you'll still want to ice after any strenuous activity, since the increase in blood flow can cause further inflammation. In addition, as you start to gradually work the injured area, ice immediately after exercise and not before, since, according to massage therapist Laurel J. Freeman, icing before could could expose the joint to further injury.

When To Use Heat

1. Your Injury Is Old


Heat helps with circulation and mobility. While you use ice for an acute injury (as in, it just happened), use heat for a chronic condition (it's been bugging you for ages), as recommended by Healthline. Fox and Adamczyk also say to use heat when your pain is chronic and feels more like muscle stiffness, soreness and/or achiness. Many ice packs can actually also be used as heat packs (look for them in your local drugstore), or you can buy a separate electrical heating pad. 

Make sure it's not too hot, and once again protect your skin with a barrier (your clothes are generally enough). You can also look for disposable heat patches at the drugstore that you stick right on the affected area and will provide a low-level amount of heat to it all day long to keep the area loose and relaxed. 

2. Your Muscles Are Tight

Heat is also better used for muscle tightness instead of a true injury. It's super relaxing and can help ease overworked muscles that have lots of knots in them. Fox and Adamczyk explain that when your symptoms align more with stiffness and soreness it is important to increase the circulation to help the tissue repair and remodel. Moist heat is best.

Try running a towel under hot water and then carefully placing it on the site of pain. You should also try self-massage with a foam roller or massage balls (or indulge in a real massage) to help work out additional muscular and fascial tension. Heat will increase blood supply to the area, which will help clear out any built-up lactic acid that is causing you muscle stiffness and soreness. If you have cramps and use a heating pad during your period, you already know that heat is super effective for calming down muscle spasms.

3. You're About To Work Out

Since heat gets everything loosened up, it's great for when you are feeling stiff prior to working out. It's also helpful to use if you plan on exercising outside in the cold. It's super important to keep your muscles loose and relaxed both before and after any physical activity, so consider heat an awesome motivational coach to your muscles, telling them to relax and get ready to perform. But remember that heat should never be used after a workout; if you have pain, turn to ice.

Remember that the most important aid in mending an injury is time. So rest up, be patient, and know that you'll be back to working out again soon. And remember, if you're still unsure whether your injury needs ice vs heat, if it doesn't start to get better in a day or two, or if it starts to get worse, go see a doctor immediately. According to Fox and Adamczyk, there are always exceptions to any rule and where ice or heat are not well tolerated by an individual, or where a person has a known medical condition that would make ice or heat counter-indicated, you will need to seek alternate forms of care. 

Your body does a lot of work for you, so make sure you treat it well so you can get back to pursuing your active, happy, healthy life as soon as possible.

Images: Quinn Dombrowski (2); Neeta Lind, Jenny Lazebnik/Flickr; Kaspars Grinvalds/Fotolia

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