Ice vs. Heat: What's best for your injured athlete?
When one of your athletes suffers a minor injury – like a sprained ankle – do you know what to do to help minimize their discomfort and bolster the healing process?
Dr. Scott Lynch, director of sports medicine at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, says it’s all about blood flow.
When an athlete is injured, the RICE prescription – Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation – should be followed.
“Elevation is probably the most important thing because it limits the amount of blood flow to the area and the amount of swelling,” Lynch says.
Cold temperatures applied to an injury help constrict, or narrow, the blood vessels and keep blood from accumulating there, potentially causing inflammation or swelling that can delay the healing process.
Dr. Cayce Onks, a sports medicine and family physician at Penn State Hershey, says icing an injury for the first 48 to 72 hours after it occurs can reduce the amount of secondary tissue damage. Ice also helps reduce pain.
The recommendation is to use ice for 20 minutes, once an hour. That’s so additional issues such as frostbite or damage to the skin aren’t created. It also gives the skin a chance to recover from each icing session.
While special freezer packs are readily available, Onks says plain old ice in a bag is still the best.
“You can mold it around the injury and get more coverage,” he says. “You also have to keep in mind that because of the chemicals in freezer packs, they can get much colder than ice and you could cause temperature-related skin problems.”
Heat, on the other hand, is often used to alleviate muscle aches and pains, or to loosen up tense and sore areas before activity.
“Heat typically brings blood flow to the area, which provides nutrients that the tissues need for healing,” Onks says. “It can also increase the flexibility of tendons and muscles.”
Athletes who have chronic issues or old injuries typically heat before they are active and ice afterward. Using a moist heat can also help because some people feel like the extra humidity helps with penetration of the heat.
“A lot of it just depends on what feels good with chronic injuries,” Onks says. “It’s one of those things where some people get relief from heat and some from ice. Though with acute injuries, you would want to stick with ice.”
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