I would have to get asked at least a dozen times per week whether it is better to place ice or heat on an injury. As a general rule of thumb, any injury that has initially occurred will best be dealt with with ice for the first 24-48 hours due to the fact that we want to decrease as much swelling as possible. Ice also acts as a natural pain reliever as it slightly numbs the area. After the first 24 hours or for chronic injuries, heat may be used to relax tight muscles, speed up recovery, and assist in tissue repair however it is vitally important to not put heat on any bony/joint area if it is still tender to touch or if you are still feeling a pinching/catching sensation in the area. The following are my golden rules for icing and/or heating:
•Always ice the injured site for the first 24-48 hours;
•Never ice for longer than 20 minutes at a time (any longer and you may burn the skin or start to heat the injured area from the inside);
• Always cover the ice-pack in a thin towel to prevent ice burn;
•Never place heat on a painful/swollen bony area;
•Make sure the heat pack is not too hot to prevent skin burn;
•Utilise anti-inflammatory creams/gels if necessary in the acute stage of care (we recommend natural alternatives such as Fisiocrem or Alleviate) rather than heat based creams/gels.
I will often suggest to clients that it is best to place ice on the injured joint area (e.g. the spine/knee/ankle etc.) and to place heat on the surrounding tight muscles. Please remember above all else that as long as ice is not left on the area for too long it will very rarely ever cause any significant damage where as heat when placed on an area at the wrong time can cause significant pain and slow down your recovery time!
All the above information is the authors personal opinions and it is recommended that you should consult your health professional before taking any of the advice written above.