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Ice & Heat Therapy

How to Use Ice and Heat Therapy for Sports Injuries

Treating sports injuries with ice and heat may be a bit confusing. Knowing which one to choose is tricky. Understanding which situation calls for ice and which calls for heat will be beneficial for a number of different sports injuries. A general rule to stick to is, use ice for acute pain or injuries, including inflammation, and use heat for muscle pain and stiffness.

*Not sure which one to use? Ice is the safest and less likely to do harm, particularly when used for short periods. When you are unsure how to safely and effectively manage your condition, seek a professional opinion.

Here is some further information to help you understand how both heat therapy and ice treatments work:


Heat Therapy

Heat therapy works by improving blood flow and circulation to the area being treated. The increase in temperature to the affected area helps increase muscle flexibility and soothe discomfort. Heat therapy helps to heal damaged tissue and relax muscles.


Heat is effective for chronic pain, stress and the muscles. It helps to ease symptoms such as stiffness and aching. Chronic pain, particularly back pain, often involves tension and stress. Heat can help to soothe an edgy nervous system.

The use of heat:

  • Increases circulation
  • Increases metabolic activity
  • Can increase inflammation
  • Relieves pain
  • Soothes and relaxes muscles

Heat is good for use on:

  • Stiff joints
  • Muscle pain
  • Chronic pain


How to use Heat Therapy

  • Should be applied for muscular pain where there is no indication of a muscle tear
  • Suitable for a muscle spasm
  • Can be applied frequently and for long periods of time for non-inflammatory muscular pain
  • Avoid intense heat in sensitive areas around the front of the neck, face and groin region
  • Should never be used on acute injuries where the area is hot or swollen
  • Should be used more moderately in the older population as body tissues dissipate heat more slowly as we age

Caution: The heat applied in the wrong situation can cause harm and delayed recovery. Without as assessment, we are unable to advise you specifically on how you should manage your condition. The above information is to act as a general guideline to minimise any harm until you are able to seek a professional opinion.


Ice Therapy

Ice is great for easing damaged superficial tissue that is hot, red, inflamed, or swollen. The inflammatory process is a natural process; however, it can be painful. Ice is a mild way to dull the pain and reduce swelling.

The use of ice:

  • Reduces circulation
  • Decreases inflammation
  • Numbs skin
  • Decreases metabolic activity
  • Reduces pain and swelling


Ice is good for use on:

  • Ankle sprains
  • Muscle strains
  • Red, hot or swollen injuries
  • Acute pain


How to use Cold/Ice Therapy

  • For new injuries where there is a suspected sprain or strain demonstrating warmth of the tissue or swelling
  • This is useful for up to 72 hours following an acute injury
  • Rest Ice Compression Elevation (RICE) is the standard for such injuries of which compression is the most effective but ice assists the most with pain relief
  • Ice should be applied for no more than 15 minutes at a time with the tissue allowed to return to a normal temperature before re-applying. For areas that cool quickly such as hands, wrists or elbows, 10 minutes is sufficient


When Ice and Heat Shouldn’t be Used

Both heat treatments and ice therapy have the potential to do minor harm temporarily if used in the wrong way. Think of inflammation as heat, so adding more heat to heat can make it worse. On the other side, think about what cold does, it causes things to contract. Using ice on symptoms such as tightness and stiffness can also cause aggravation making the pain temporarily worse.


What About Injured Muscles?

This is when it might get a little confusing. If you’re supposed to use ice for injuries, and heat for muscle pain, then what do you use for an injured muscle (muscle strain or tear)? In general, ice is usually the best call, but only for the first few days and only if it’s a true muscle injury. A muscle injury, such as a torn muscle can benefit from ice initially to reduce inflammation and once the worst is over, switching to heat may help. If you are ever unsure, use ice! Heat, when there is inflammation, is more likely to cause harm.


Understanding when to use heat therapy and when to use ice therapy will significantly improve the effectiveness of treatment for sports injuries. If either treatment makes the pain or discomfort worse, stop immediately. Also, if the treatment doesn’t appear to be helping within a couple of days, make an appointment with your local South Perth sports physio.

Director & Senior Physiotherapist at Integrity Physiotherapy, Leslie Trigg, has over 13 years of experience in clinical practice. He has graduated with a degree in Human Biology (Anatomy and Physiology) from Curtin University in 2001 and later completed a Masters of Physiotherapy in 2007. He has tremendous experience in musculoskeletal, orthopaedic, neurosurgical and sports physiotherapy. In his spare time, he enjoys swimming, listening to music and spending time with his family.