Proper application of hot or cold can, depending on the case, greatly assist the healing process of an injured muscle or joint. But how do you know when to apply them?
Cold applied to an acute injury (the initial 48 hours, during the first healing phase) relieves pain caused by muscle spasms, sprains and strains. It plays a vital roll in preventing excessive swelling in the area.
If your injury feels warm, or you feel pain in the area, your injury is red and swollen, and mobility is restricted: these are signs of inflammation, therefore the use of ice is prescribed. In certain cases, ice application is contraindicated. For example, if you suffer from advanced diabetes, Raynaud’s Disease, or diminished circulation, do not apply ice. If you are uncertain, please consult your physiotherapist.
After icing your injury, wait an hour before returning to action. Ice decreases sensation (and pain) in the injured area, so returning to play too quickly can aggravate your injury.
Once the edema has been reabsorbed, you can apply heat to stimulate blood flow. The use of heat is recommended in the sub-acute stage of healing (2 weeks into the healing process), or for chronic injuries (an injury lasting 3 months or more). You can apply heat for 20-30 minutes at a time. Accelerating the healing process of persistent bruises can be done with heat application as well.
Word of advice: don’t bring the heating pad to bed with you! If you fall asleep with it on, you can burn yourself. Also, do not sit or lie on the heating pad. Your body weight decreases blood flow to the area, which increases your risk of getting burned.