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When to use Ice or Heat to recover from sports injuries [2021]

You have picked up an injury but should you use ice, heat, both or neither? Our team reviewed the evidence as well as combining years of practical experience to answer your questions.

An easy way to remember is;

  • Ice for pain and swelling.
  • Heat for mobility and movement.

What does ice do for an injury?

Ice slows down the nerve signals to the brain. By doing this it reduces the levels of pain that are experienced and as a result, reduce the bodies ‘pain response’. In doing so it will reduce the level of swelling in the area.

But remember, not all swelling is bad. In the early stages of an injury swelling is the body’s natural way of repairing and protecting itself. Swelling can be good early on but we want to manage it. This will also prevent the area of the body from swelling up at the slightest movements.

Read more about the benefits of ice.

What can heat do for an injury?

Heat increases blood flow to an area and with that, it will carry oxygen and nutrients that can help aid tissue repair. Additionally, it will warm the muscle making the fibres more elastic, reducing muscle spasm and relax.

It is important not to use heat on new injuries, as we mentioned above some swelling is good, but too much can be detrimental to your recovery. Heat on new injuries will increase swelling.

Read more about the benefits of heat.

Ice or heat for new injuries (Acute)?

Don’t ice for the first 24 hours just use compression.

Use Ice between 24 and 72 hours. 20 minutes at a time as frequently as you want but making sure to allow 40 minutes between icing sessions.

Ice or heat for old injuries (chronic)?

Older injuries, anything over 6 weeks, will respond better to heat. You can still use ice but only when the injury is particularly painful or you notice that there is some swelling over the area.

Ice or heat for muscle strains?

Use both.

Ice to reduce the pain and swelling. You will normally find that the pain is worse after using the muscle so after exercise or at the end of the day will be the most benefit.

Use heat to help relax the muscle and increase mobility. Use heat before you are doing any rehab exercises to help prepare the muscle.

Ice or heat for Tendonitis?

Tendonitis is an inflammation of the tendon, usually from overuse or repetitive strain, and can be very painful.

Tendonitis responds very well to ice. Use it for 20 minutes to reduce pain and swelling. Avoid using ice before you do exercise.

Ice or heat for Tendinosis.

Tendinosis refers to long term (chronic) tendon pain. This normally occurs over a long period of time due to degeneration of the fibres, it is there for common in people who are 50+ years of age.

Use heat for tendinosis. It will help to reduce the stiffness in the tendon and the joint.

Use ice if the tendon is particularly painful or you notice that there is some swelling in the area.

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