The best answer to this common question is “It depends on your injury”.
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural healing response and is actually a positive reaction. With any injury, tissues are damaged, and your body adapts by sending more blood to the injury site. With this increased blood supply, inflammatory cells such as leukocytes and macrophages get to work releasing proteins which clean up and heal the injured site. The area is tender and sore, (which is a reminder for you to be gentle using it!) but your body is effectively trying to repair the damaged area. Keep in mind though, inflammation and pain is your body’s way of telling you to stop and take action. The purpose of inflammation needs to be respected because essentially it is a protective response from the body to prevent you from doing further damage to yourself.
When you apply ice to an injury, the blood vessels constrict, temporarily limiting the blood flow to the injured site. The cold temperature inhibits the pain response, so although ice can often provided some pain relief, it can also delay healing.
When you apply heat to an area, the blood flow increases which can help deliver more oxygen and nutrients to a more chronic problem and support healing. However, for this reason, too much heat can also contribute to further inflammation. Applying heat can help with muscle aches, pains and general stiffness but should never be applied to a new injury or an area that is painful or swollen.
So what should you do?
Again, it depends on the injury. If you have a new injury such as a strain or sprain, and you feel you need some pain relief, applying an ice pack is a good option to provide temporary relief (certainly what I recommend more than taking a muscle relaxant or ibuprofen) and it will help the healing process.
Keep these tips in mind:
- Choose a chemical ice pack, bag of frozen vegetables, ziploc bag with ice cubes in it, and protect your skin by placing clothing or towel between you and the pack
- 10min on/10min off cycles throughout the day (NOT consistently, your body needs breaks to effectively use the therapeutic benefits. When you apply ice to the injured area you will either feel relief or mild discomfort due to the cold. Often the sensations you feel with icing is pain-tingling-numbness. Once the ice is removed at the 10 minute mark, the area should be numb. The body will then react to re-warm the area with gentle blood flow to supply the tissues with oxygen and nutrients. This reaction will not occur if the ice is left on too long.
- Ideally ice should be applied as soon as possible after injury, and in cycles for the first 72 hours of acute trauma.
Remember, the body knows best! As far as healing goes it’s best to let inflammation run its course. This will take time, perhaps even longer than you would like, but ultimately you will be rewarded with improved and more complete recovery.