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When to use ice and heat for pain relief

When you've just sprained your ankle or pulled a muscle, all you want is some pain relief. If painkillers are handy, you probably pop a couple of them. If not, you ask for some ice - or was that heat instead?

To sort out this confusion, let's see what they really do. Both ice and heat relieve pain and help recovery.

How to use ice

Ice is useful when you want to reduce swelling. For example, your ankle balloons up after a sprain. This is because blood and fluid collects rapidly, making it both painful and stiff.

At this point, an ice pack helps to close off those tiny vessels. The blood flow slows down. Small nerves become numbed, so the pain reduces. The muscles also relax. The inflammatory reaction is slowed down. As a result, your ankle is less swollen and painful.

Ice packs are very useful in bruises, strains and joint swellings. Use them for any acute swelling, over the first 24 to 48 hours (except back strains). Ice helps later too, while exercising the limb. Our friendly physiotherapists can show you how to make movements less painful and more flexible by using an ice pack just before or during exercise.

How to make an ice pack

Wrap a plastic bag of frozen peas or ice cubes in a thick cold wet towel. Place it on the injured part. Check after a few minutes to make sure the skin is not red, an early sign of frostbite. Generally, icing for 15 to 20 minutes is enough. Repeat every 2-4 hours. Our physiotherapists will help use ice properly for healing and pain relief.

How to use heat

Heat packs, bottles or infra-red lamps can be very useful if you have a muscle spasm or 48 hours after injury. Icing a muscle spasm contracts the muscle fibers, so they would hurt intensely. On the other hand, heat improves the circulation, soothes and relaxes the muscles by carrying away toxins and bringing in healing oxygen. Heat can comfort a back or neck strain, especially if it has been persisting for some time.

When you use a heat pack, wrap it in a towel and check the temperature so it doesn't burn the skin.

When not to use heat

Don't use heat if you have a painful, red or swollen joint. This increases circulation so that fluid collects, worsening the swelling and stretching or compressing the nerves and surrounding healthy tissue. This makes it still more painful. You'd be better off icing it.

When to use neither heat nor ice

Whether you use hot or cold packs, be aware that you can damage your skin and deeper tissues by careless use.

Don't use it if you have an open or infected wound. If the circulation or sensation level is poor, as in diabetes, ice and heat could cause the skin to break down, get infected and worse.

But in ordinary injuries, ice and heat provide inexpensive, non-toxic pain relief. Visit us for more help with using ice or heat. We'll speed up your recovery and get you moving more easily..


Getting fit on a tight budget

Remember; even when money is tight, YOU are still important. Set apart time for health.

Buy fresh foods on discount. Cook healthy meals in large batches and freeze for next week. For sudden hunger pangs, a low-fat dip with veggie sticks is fine!

An exercise mat for stretches, push-ups, squats or calf raises needs no investment. Nor does a brisk 30-minute walk. Strength training with water bottles or backpacks with books works well. Just take care of your back when using a heavy pack. Split the cost of an exercise ball, resistance tubes, a couple of jump ropes, a few dumbbells and a couple of certified exercise videos and start a training group!

Of course, just walking the dog, vacuuming, laundry, active games with the kids - any or all of these, at your convenience, will let you achieving your fitness goals. Enjoy!.


Quick tip

Don't skip meals. You should have, at the very least, three meals a day, but preferably five small meals. This will keep you from getting hungry during the day and overeating out of starvation.



It's not whether you get knocked down; it's whether you get up.

~ Vince Lombard

Further reading:

  • RICE: Immediate action following an injury

    The first and best thing to do when an injury occurs is to apply the RICE formula; a treatment for reducing pain and swelling.

  • Sprained ankle and ice

    Most people who sprain their ankle know of the RICE protocol; Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate - and they apply it at the first sign of pain and swelling.

  • Ice and heat therapy

    Ice therapy (cryotherapy) is the use of ice in the treatment of acute and chronic injuries.

  • Soft tissue injury

    Soft tissue injury may occur in the muscle as in a contusion or strain, in the tendons as in a strain or tendinopathy, in fascia connective tissue as in a fasciitis or in the ligaments as in a sprain or in the joint bursae as in a bursitis.


We do not warrant or represent that the information in this site is free from errors or omissions or is suitable for your intended use. We recommend that you seek individual advice before acting on any information in this site. We have made every effort to ensure that the information on our website is correct at the time of publication but recommend that you exercise your own skill and care with respect to its use. If you wish to purchase our services, please do not rely solely on the information in this website.

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