Ice versus heat? This is a common question a lot of athletes, coming into my Grapevine, Texas office, ask. Most understand that ice immediately after injury is very important. The questions usually revolve around when to use heat. There are some basic guidelines that every athlete can use to reduce confusion.
Immediately ice the "fall down, go boom injuries." Ice works well for reducing redness, swelling and internal bleeding in acute injuries. It also is a great pain reliever. Acute injuries and post surgical pain and swelling usually respond well to 10 to 15 minutes of ice every few hours. This should be done for up to several weeks after an injury or surgery. Ice can be in the form of an ice pack (ice wrapped in a protective towel) or ice massage (massaging with a frozen water bottle or block of ice).
Ice can also be helpful in reducing swelling in a chronic injury like runner's knee or plantar fasciitis. Icing immediately after activity can prevent further inflammation of an already annoyed area and help in recovery.
So where does heat come in? Heat can be used in several different ways. Contrast baths with ice/heat/ice can be helpful in chronic injuries. Especially those joints or tendons that still have just a little inflammation or edema. Heat should never be used alone in these cases. Moist heat is best for chronic stiffness and old injuries with scar tissue. It can also help in the rehabilitation process. For example, when plantar fasciitis becomes plantar fasciosis after four to six months (which is a chronic degeneration of the plantar fascia), deep heat therapy with ultrasound or moist heat packs can help increase range of motion of the area and increase the effectiveness of physical therapy. Heat actually temporarily increases inflammation in an area, but this is often helpful in kick starting the healing process. Heat can also be used to calm muscle spasms and relax a tight muscle.
Heat causes an increase in circulation to an area, so it should never be used in acute injuries or chronic injuries with a lot of swelling. It can actually make an injury worse if there is still a little internal bleeding going on. A great way to heat a joint or tendon is to use a reusable heating pack or an electric heating pad for about 20 minutes before stretching, massage or other therapy. Heating an old injury before exercise can also be helpful in warming up the area to ready it for increased activity.
The simple rule of thumb is that ice is used for acute, swollen injuries and heat is used for stiff, chronic injuries. This subject is debated continuously, but I hope this discussion clears up the mystery of ice versus heat!