Most people know that putting heat or ice on injuries can accelerate the healing process. However it can be confusing to remember which treatment should be used when. And it’s important that you know the difference because choosing the wrong treatment for your injury can actually increase your healing time.
What’s the Reason Behind Applying Heat or Cold to an Injury?
To understand how heat and cold can aid your recovery process, it’s first important to understand why. And it all comes down to blood flow. Your body is constantly pumping blood around your body, sending nutrients, body warmth and oxygen to enable you to function normally. If you become injured, your body’s natural response is to send additional blood flow to the effected area. This extra blood is aimed at combating and removing any foreign entry as well as accelerating your natural healing.
Using Heat Packs
In general, heat packs are a great way to alleviate long term injuries, also known as chronic conditions. A heat pack will stimulate your blood vessels to open wide, which improves blood flow to a targeted area. Heat packs are also perfect for assisting areas that experience a high level of muscle tension, such as your neck, shoulders or back. Simply heat up your heat pack in the microwave and place it on your targeted area. In addition, heat can also be a good option for injuries caused by repetitive overuse.
“A good rule of thumb is: Use heat on an injury that has already occurred to improve its recovery.”
How to Apply Heat
The best method is to use a dedicated heat pack, which you can place in the microwave for 2 minutes to heat up. Heat should not be used for more than 20 minutes at a time, to reduce the chance of inflaming other areas.
Heat Pack Precautions
Never use heat immediately after experiencing an injury as this will likely do more harm than good. Your body is already naturally increasing blood flow to the area and so does not need further assistance from a heat pack.
Be careful when applying a heat pack to your targeted area. Ensure that the heat pack is not too hot, or that adequate clothing is secured as protection. Do not use heat packs for extended time periods such as sleeping or while on long car trips. This can increase the risk of inflammation which can make you feel stiff.
When to Use an Ice Pack
Ice is a great way to lessen the damage of acute (sudden) injuries. By applying ice to an injured area you begin to restrict blood flow, which in turn reduces inflammation. This is important for sudden injuries as it reduces the pressure that your body is under, so it can better focus on beginning and maintaining the healing process. It also numbs the pain that you’re feeling which is another huge benefit.
“A good rule of thumb is: Use Ice on an injury that has just occurred to reduce pain and improve recovery.”
How to Use an Ice Pack
For maximum benefit, use an icepack on an injury within 48 hours of injury. The longer the delay in applying the icepack, the less the benefit. When applying the ice, never leave it in the same position for more than 15 minutes, as this can ice-burn the area. Instead, regularly move the ice around the injury region. Always wrap the ice in a plastic bag or in a towel.
It’s also recommended to keep the injured area elevated above your heart, or as high as possible. This is important as it further reduces blood flow and inflammation to the affected area. While icing, it’s preferable to keep the injured area elevated above the heart. This acts to further stem blood flow and reduce inflammation. Never ice an area for more than 15 minutes at a time as the reduced local blood flow can lead to conditions such as frostbite.
Precautions When Using Ice Packs
As discussed, only use icepacks on injuries that have just occurred. Be aware that applying ice to an area with lots of nerves can be painful. This includes bone fracture sites. If applying ice causes too much pain, do not continue to apply ice as the discomfort has outweighed the benefit that the ice could provide.
If you break a bone, do not apply ice as your body does actually need to increase blood flow to the affected area to begin recovery. By adding ice to the injury site, you are infact increasing the recovery time for broken bones.
Be careful when applying ice packs to your neck area. It’s recommended that you instead use a cold cloth as an ice pack will reduce blood flow to your head. And it’s important that blood flow to your head is maintained.
What happens if You’re Still Unsure?
If you’re unsure whether to use an icepack or a heatpack on your injury, simply contact your doctor or osteopath.