Sports medicine physicians often “prescribe” warm or cold compresses after injury. Carefully following your doctor’s instructions about this is key to a successful recovery, especially within the first 48 hours. Below, we’ve outlined when you should – and shouldn’t – apply heat or ice to an injured area.
Heat works to bring more blood to the affected area, while reducing joint stiffness and muscle spasms. Applying heat to an injury is not recommended within the first 48 hours or immediately after physical activity, however.
Heat is most commonly used to soothe sore muscles a few hours after exercise. Warm compresses make sense in this instance because when muscles are working, our bodies produce chemical byproducts that lead to soreness when they’re built up in the body. These chemicals are eliminated through increased blood flow, which heat helps to provide.
Several companies manufacture warm compresses, but you can also save money by making your own at home. Dampen a towel with warm water or use a heating pad. Be cautious when applying these directly to your skin, especially If you have nerve damage and/or diabetes.
Relieve pain from an injured area by applying ice to it. When injury occurs, tissues are damaged. Cold compresses numb the area to minimize tenderness and pain. Cold packs also help reduce swelling and inflammation.
Many athletes will take “ice baths” which are beneficial in preventing inflammation directly after intense exercise.
Ice packs can also be purchased or made at home. Dampen a towel with cold water and freeze it, or put ice in a plastic bag. Place a towel in between the compress and your skin, to avoid risks from direct application.
If you are injured, please contact Campbell Clinic to meet with a physician. For more information about Campbell Clinic, please visit our website.
This blog post was adapted from Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.