What is the difference between using Ice or Heat for an Injury?

It is common among all performing artists to face injury at some point in their career.  We have all been told to ice or apply heat to an injury, but when do we apply ice? When do we apply heat? And for how long? How often?  Do you apply ice immediately after being injured, or is it better to apply heat? Applying ice or heat at the right time can help speed the recovery of an injury, if incorrectly applied it can actually cause more damage to the injury.

There are many different ideas about when to apply ice and when to apply heat.  If the injury is acute or chronic depends on if heat or ice should be applied.

  • An Acute Injury is when there is immediate pain, inflammation and swelling. It is usually a result of impact or a traumatic event, for example, a sprained ankle.
  • A Chronic Injury refers to a progressive injury, one that may come and go. It often begins with mild symptoms and progressively becomes worse over time.

Ice to Injury

Treating an Acute Injury

Ice should be applied to an acute injury as it reduces the pain and swelling seen from the onset of an acute injury.  The ice causes the blood vessels to narrow therefore limiting any internal bleeding at the injury site. Ice should be applied immediately to the area for 10-15 minutes and repeated every 2-3 hours for 24 to 48 hours. Ice therapy can also be used in treating overuse injuries, common in performing artists. For example, if a dancer suffers from knee pain from long hours of rehearsals ice can be applied to the area to prevent inflammation. It can help with pain relief and the relaxation of muscles. After 48 hours heat can be applied to the area through heat pads, deep heat etc., as bleeding in the area should have stopped.  The aim changes from restricting bleeding and swelling to repairing and remobilising the tissues through rehabilitation such as physiotherapy, sports massage, exercise and stretching. The heat will cause the blood vessels to open up and encourage more blood to the area, therefore stimulating the area to heal the tissues. Applying heat also has a soothing effect on the body and helps to relieve pain and spasms. It can also ease stiffness making the tissues more supple.  It is important to only ice a new injury; applying heat can make the injury worse. It will increase bleeding in the area and cause further inflammation, which could make the injury worse.

Treating a Chronic Injury

If the injury is chronic heat should be applied throughout the area.  If muscles or joints are sore or stiff, heat can help to relax the muscles as circulation is increased in the area.  Heat increases the blood flow in the injured area, stimulating the area to heal.  It also has a direct soothing effect and helps to relieve pain and spasms.

There is one exception to the rule.  If you have acute lower-back pain heat can be applied to the area as a lot of pain in this case is caused by muscle spasm.  Heat therefore would be more beneficial then ice.

So Always Remember:

ICE is for INJURIES: Reduces inflamed damaged tissues.

Heat is for MUSCLES: Takes the edge off pain.