Photo by Brian Canniff –

With the college season picking up steam, and local fall leagues in full swing, our partners at NovaCare are back to share some more tips to help reduced your chances of injury.

When starting a new exercise program, first and foremost, it is important to check in with your physician prior to starting. But, it’s also important to know what to do when you feel pain or feel as though you suffered a potential injury. In general, a new injury will cause inflammation and possibly swelling.

The most common home remedies that people turn to when they are injured include heat and ice. Determining when to use one versus the other is also a commonly confused topic. Both have their benefits and both should be used with caution.

Heat is most effective for chronic, long-term injuries. These types of impairments usually do not have a specific injury, but get more painful and debilitating over time. Frequently used methods include over the counter hot packs, taking a hot shower or sitting in a hot tub or sauna; all great options. When using heat treatments, the temperature should be comfortable and not too hot. Heat application to an injury should last no more than 15 minutes per hour.

Heat is an effective treatment for:

  • Chronic muscle spasm
  • Muscle and joint stiffness
  • Increasing blood flow

Ice has long been the go-to choice for immediate first aid with acute injuries…and it still is! Acute injuries are within 48 hours of a specific event, such as twisting your ankle playing touch football. Cold therapy is not as fun as heat, but is an effective method of treatment when used properly.

Most common cold methods are homemade ice bags, re-freezable ice packs or a good old fashioned bag of frozen peas. These are all excellent options. For cold therapy application, 15 minutes every hour for a new injury is recommended. Ice applications are also effective when combined with rest, compression and elevation.

Ice is an effective treatment for:

  • Pain relief
  • Reducing or limiting swelling
  • Acute muscle spasm

Next time, try putting a paper cup full of water in the freezer. When it becomes solid, tear the paper off and use the large ice cube to gently massage the injured area.

Heat and ice can also be used together for an effective treatment 48 hours after injury when the initial phase of healing has passed. This is called the “sub-acute phase” and can last one to two weeks. During this phase, you may have continued swelling and decreased range of motion.

Using heat and ice together has been recommended to control swelling and decrease pain. For an ankle sprain, put a bucket of ice water next to a bucket of hot water. Fill them high enough to cover your ankle and comfortably fit your foot. Place the injured limb in the hot water for three minutes, then switch to the ice water for one minute. Repeat this cycle three times per treatment.

The heat is making the blood vessels bigger and the ice with constrict the blood vessels, creating a pumping mechanism in your limb to push swelling out of the joint. Many patients feel better after the treatment and a more effective physical therapy session (when necessary) may be had.

It is never advised to fall asleep with heat or ice on an injured limb. Be cautious using these treatments if you have decreased sensation, are hypersensitive to temperature, have a history of cardiac or circulatory problems or have a rash or an open wound.

If symptoms from an injury do not subside, seek medical attention. For more information on heat and/or ice therapy, please contact NovaCare Rehabilitation or Select Physical Therapy today.

 Joseph Rauch, DPT, SCS, ATC