By: Arnold J. Weil, M.D.
It doesn’t matter what sport you are playing or the type of injury that you sustain, one of the most common questions that we’re asked at our practice is whether to apply heat or ice to the injury. It’s not always a straightforward answer, and the method that you choose can greatly affect the speed of your recovery.
Understanding the dynamics of an injury can simplify the decision. After a trauma to the neck, back or extremity, the injured area can become inflamed and swelling may occur. Swelling inhibits the healing process and can cause pain and limited mobility. Preventing or reducing swelling, therefore, helps speed the healing process and enhances tissue repair.
Ice packs are the standard form of cold treatment (also called cryotherapy), and are used for applying penetrating cold into the deep tissues. The initial response of the skin to cryotherapy is an anesthetic sensation, which is why we get “goosebumps” and, later, numbness in the treated area. This type of cold modality constricts the blood vessels, reduces blood flow and prevents swelling and lessens pain. The cooling effect of an ice pack lasts longer and is much more effective than other superficial methods of treatment such as ice massage. For those body parts that have less surface area, such as small joints or the neck, so-called “gel packs” are often used to achieve greater penetration for the cold modality. Ice should be applied immediately after an injury for five (5) to fifteen (15) minutes. The amount of time spent icing the body part depends upon the location and seriousness of the injury. These applications should be utilized throughout the waking hours at regular intervals. Areas of low body fat, like the knee or ankle, do not tolerate cold as well or as long as fatty areas, like the back or thigh, so allow a reasonable time in between treatments.
Indications for cold treatment include the following:
• Acute inflammation or swelling
• Acute muscle spasm
After the initial 48 to 72 hours, most injuries have responded well to ice treatments and the swelling will begin to subside. This is the time when heat can be applied to the area to further increase blood flow and promote healing. Heat stimulates and increases blood flow to the injured area. In addition to promoting healing after the initial cold care, heat also relaxes muscles and eases pain. Indications for the use of heat include the following:
• Joint Stiffness
• Chronic muscle spasm
• Chronic inflammation
Superficial and moist heat is used at intervals of 15 – 20 minutes throughout the day. Caution must be used to avoid prolonged exposure, as even moderate heat can cause burns.
Dr. Weil is the Founder and CEO of Non-Surgical Orthopaedics, P.C., a medical facility that provides the latest non-invasive treatment for low back and neck pain. The practice has three locations throughout metro Atlanta. Please visit Dr. Weil’s website at www.lowbackpain.com.
Arnold J. Weil, MD
Non-Surgical Orthopaedics, PC
335 Roselane Street
Marietta, GA 30060