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Hot or Cold: When to Use the Right Compress for Your Injury

You have likely heard you should use heat or cold when you develop a sports injury, but knowing when to appropriately use each one can make a world of difference in how fast you recover from your injury. Different types of injuries require different types of treatment.

Acute Sports Injuries

Acute injuries are typically caused by trauma. Your injury may have been caused by a direct blow to the area, a fall, or an accidental twisting movement. These injuries cause severe and immediate pain.

Treat Short Term Injuries with Cold Compress

When you first receive an acute sports injury, you must control any swelling, inflammation, bleeding, and pain. Apply an ice compress to the injury as soon as possible. This will cool down the tissues, lower their metabolic rate and nerve conduction velocity, resulting in vasoconstriction of the surrounding blood vessels and reduced inflammation.

Apply ice to the injury, and make sure the ice remains in contact with the injury for at least 20 minutes, and then reapply the ice every two to three hours for the next 48 hours if possible. Always ensure you wrap the compress in a light towel to protect the skin from ice burns.

After 48 hours the injury will start it’s natural healing and remodelling process and stop bleeding. When the signs of inflammation diminish after three to five days of rest and cold treatment, you can then alternate between hot and cold treatments. Apply cold for 10 minutes, and immediately follow with 10 minutes of heat. This should result in a massive increase of blood flow to the injured site, as the vasoconstriction that occurred with cooling will reverse when heat is applied, allowing an influx of blood to flow to the damaged tissues and promote quicker healing.

If you are treating knee injuries, you’ll need to remove your knee braces before applying cold or hot treatment. If you have a knee brace for running or a hinged knee brace, you’ll need to leave it off for the duration of treatment.

Chronic Sports Injuries

Chronic sports injuries do not appear as suddenly as acute injuries do. Chronic injuries gradually build up over several days, weeks, or even longer. They are typically caused by overuse of a muscle or by a biomechanical abnormality. Some chronic injuries are caused by an acute injury that has failed to heal due to the absence of appropriate treatment and a return to training or competition too early.

Heat Compress is Ideal for Treating Chronic Injuries

For chronic injuries, apply a heat compress to the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes. You can use a warm, damp towel, a hot water bottle, a heat rub, or a heating pad. If you use a heating pad or hot water bottle, place a layer of protection between your skin and the bottle or pad to prevent burns.

Using heat to treat chronic sports injuries will help soothe aching muscles and joints, relax tight muscles, increase blood flow to the injury to reduce stiffness and increase the elasticity of tendons and ligaments.

In general, heat therapy is also recommended prior to exercise for those who have chronic injuries. Heat warms the muscles and helps increase flexibility. The only time you should ever consider using cold to treat a chronic injury is after you are finished exercising when inflammation may reappear. Applying cold at this time helps reduce any residual swelling.

Written by Abby Evans