Sports Injury: To Heat Or Not To Heat? - Paul Gough Physio Rooms

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Sports Injury: To Heat Or Not To Heat?

Well fancy seeing you here…Today I want to talk to you about…

Ice or Heat?

Now here is a question I get asked a lot about which works best and for an injury.

Most people know that Applying ice or heat to an injured area can help speed up recovery, however from my experience…

lots of people don’t know how, why or even when to use ice or heat.

This is extremely important as applying the wrong one can DELAY recovery.

When I was younger I always suffered from ankle injuries whilst playing football. My dad, (after telling me to stop being a baby of course), would tell me to have a hot bath after to reduce the pain.

I felt better at the time but then the next day, wow!, my ankle would swell to near twice its size and the pain was even WORSE!.

I always wondered why if I had a hot bath after an injury it felt much worse than if I had just had a shower instead. The reason behind this is also the reason we apply ice and NOT heat after a new injury.

If you suffer an injury such as a muscle strain or ligament sprain for example that area normally swells, often quite significantly depending upon the severity of the injury.

But Don’t worry, this is normal, it’s the body’s way of protecting the area and ensuring it heals.

However the body normally goes a bit over the top, swelling a lot more than is necessary, (hey, better safe than sorry!). The problem with prolonged swelling is that it can cause the muscles and joint to become very stiff, tight and quite painful!

In order to reduce this swelling ice is better to apply than heat, at least for the first 3 days anyway.

Let me break it down for you


When you put ice onto a swollen injured area it causes the veins to constrict (narrow). Veins are like little pipes, they control the flow of blood around the body so when they are cold they reduce the flow of blood to that area, reducing swelling and in turn speeding up recovery.

COLD can also REDUCE your level of pain as well!

So how to do it properly..

How to:

It is best to use ice for the first 3 days after an injury to reduce swelling.

Leave the ice on for a MAXIMUM of 15 minutes as icing longer than this can sometimes lead to more swelling.

Remember when you got involved in a snowball fight as a kid, after a while scooping up and hurling snow at your nearest and dearest your hands probably became quite red, this is the body’s way of protecting you when you get too cold by making the veins dilate (widen), causing more blood to flow to that area to heat it up, (Over-cautious body again.. But pretty clever!).

Don’t forget, never apply directly to your skin!!, this is likely to BURN. Instead put the ice in a damp towel and then apply the towel to the injured area.

NEVER put the ice back on if the area is still cold, leave at least an hour between each time you ice the area and try to ice 3 times per day.

Other factors:

Other factors can help reduce the swelling too:

Compression of the injured area with an elastic bandage can help reduce swelling. Remember, don’t wrap too tight!.

Signs of the bandage being too tight are pins and needles, numbness and tingling in the injured area/ the area swelling more below the bandage. If this happens loosen it off!.

Elevation of the injured area above heart level whilst icing can help speed up recovery.

Resting the area of course can limit the chances of further trauma/ delayed recovery. You wouldn’t drive a car with a mechanical fault so don’t run on an injured leg!.


Heat, unlike ice, causes the veins to dilate (become wider), this in turn causes more blood to flow to that area.

This is the reason for me feeling much worse having a soak in a hot bath after an injury…

Heat does have its uses though. When the swelling has subsided (normally + 3 days after the injury), the muscles that have been rested can be quite tight and sore, heat can actually help to loosen these muscles before you go back into exercising again.

How to:

You could use a hot water bottle (not too hot that it is going to burn. You should be able to tolerate it), leave it on for no longer than 15 minutes checking to make sure that the skin is not too red every few minutes.

Remember similar to icing, leave at least an hour between each time you apply heat. If the area is still red and hot allow it more time to return to its normal colour before applying heat again.

I hope this helps to clear up some of the confusion of what to do following an injury and allows you to get back to your hobbies quicker!


I’d love to stay and chat but plenty to do!

Speak soon

Jonny Corner  😉


However if you can’t wait for my next blog have a look at this other blog I’ve written below ( I promise its a great read with a cuppa).

Paul Gough
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