If you've ever been confused about whether to apply ice or heat to an injury or painful area, you're not alone. Hot and cold therapies are inexpensive, effective and generally safe remedies for many different types of injuries and conditions. So next time you're wondering which one to apply to a newly purple bruise or your aching back, remember this general rule of thumb:
- Use ice to treat acute (new) injuries that are accompanied by inflammation and swelling, such as sprains, strains, bruises and tendinitis
- Use heat for chronic (ongoing), non-inflammatory pain or stiffness, such as from arthritis, fibromyalgia, back or neck pain
- Notable exception: heat works wonders for the acute muscle soreness that you get from overexertion, such as when you're in pain from lifting heavy boxes or trying a new workout
Cold therapy how-to.
Ice feels good on a new injury because it temporarily decreases the amount of blood flow to the injured area. This can significantly reduce inflammation, pain and swelling. But ice therapy can be ineffective and even dangerous if not done properly. Here's how to do it right.
- Ice therapy is best for new injuries and the swelling and inflammation of flare-ups
- Apply the treatment as soon as possible to get the most benefit
- Elevate the affected area if possible for best results
- To avoid possible skin and tissue damage, never apply cold directly to the skin; wrap the ice or gel pack in a towel
- If skin is broken, make sure the wound has been cleaned and dressed before applying ice to avoid possible infection
- Cold therapy works best and is safest when used several times a day (as much as every 2 hours) for short periods: 10 to 15 minutes and no more than 20 minutes at a time
- Ice therapy is typically only beneficial for the first 48-72 hours; after that you want to allow blood flow to promote the body's natural healing process
When to go to the ER for a sprain.
Many sprains are minor and can be treated at home with rest and ice. Others may require a doctor's diagnosis and treatment, which you can find at one of the many CareNow Urgent Care locations across DFW.
Sprains that are more serious may require a trip to the ER. Here are the signs:
- Immediate or severe pain
- Tenderness when touched
- Inability to put weight on or move the sprained area
- Deformity, which might indicate a broken bone
Hot therapy how-to.
Heat can relax and soothe sore, tense muscles and help heal damaged tissue by increasing blood flow. Heat therapy can also increase flexibility, which is why it's often used prior to physical or occupational therapy sessions. Just as with cold therapy, heat therapy can be misused. Here's how to do it right.
- Heat therapy is best for non-inflammatory body pain in muscles and joints
- Heat source should be warm, not hot, to avoid burns
- Heat may be used for short periods (15 to 20 minutes) or longer (30+ minutes), such as a warm, relaxing bath
- Do not use heat on bruises, swollen areas or open wounds
When to go to the ER for back pain.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that up to one-fourth of American adults experience low back pain each year and that most of us will suffer from back pain at least once in our lives. Mild, occasional episodes can be treated at home with rest and heat. For chronic back pain that's interfering with your quality of life, make an appointment to see a spine specialist.
When back pain is accompanied by these symptoms, you should head to the ER:
- Weakness in legs
- Problems urinating or having bowel movements
- Following trauma, such as a fall or car accident
If back, neck, knee or hip pain is slowing you down, learn about your options by taking our free assessment.
Medical City Healthcare provides comprehensive emergency services across North Texas.
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