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Fire and ice

To treat an injury, should you crank the cold or turn up the heat?

woman applying ice and heat to shoulder

When you experience an ache or pain, it can be tough to tell whether applying ice or heat is more effective. Experts from Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute (JOI) and Baptist Primary Care offered tips for tackling injuries as well as more common ailments, like sinus issues or cramps.

Feel the freeze

Richard “Lance” Snyder, MD, a sports medicine physician with JOI, said ice is almost always a better option for severe ailments like strains, sprains or sports-related injuries.

Ice constricts the blood vessels, reducing blood flow and consequently decreasing swelling in the injured area, Dr. Snyder explained. The reduced blood flow also helps to ease pain and stop muscle spasms.

To ice an injured area, Dr. Snyder recommends using an ice pack or filling a small cup with water and freezing it. Wrap the ice in a towel, massage the injured area for five minutes, and finish by stretching.

Dr. Snyder said spending a few minutes in an ice bath after a big sporting event is also a great way to reduce swelling and inflammation while decreasing the risk for future injuries.

When to warm

Heat, Dr. Snyder explained, is more effective for increasing blood flow to warm muscles up. For example, a pitcher might apply heat to his or her shoulder before a baseball game.

Marylin James, DO, a family physician with Baptist Primary Care, said heat is also generally more effective for chronic pain, like arthritis. She also recommends heat for menstrual cramps.

“Heat is also good for when people experience earaches, jaw pain or sinus infections,” Dr. James said. “Heat basically helps increase circulation to the area.”

To safely apply heat, you can use a heating pad, hot water bag, or a warm compress, according to Dr. James. Most heating pads are electric, but there are some filled with rice or another substance that you can simply microwave.

“One important thing to note, whether it’s heat or cold, is to only apply it for a maximum of 15 minutes at a time and keep a towel or extra layer around the source, otherwise it can cause injury or burns to the skin,” Dr. James said.

Battling an acute or sports-related injury? For an appointment at JOI, call 904.564.2000 or visit Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute. Physicians with Baptist Primary Care can provide assessment and guidance for next steps for a range of ailments. If you need help finding the right primary care doctor for yourself or a loved one, call 904.202.4YOU or send an appointment request.

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