I have a recent injury…should I use ice or heat?

By: Dr. Virginia Nsitem

Dr. Virginia Nsitem

This is one of the most frequently asked questions heard in my office. The answer is not always straightforward. There are many factors that determine what treatment is best following an injury.

What Happens to your body following an injury:

  • Following an injury, you may experience many symptoms.
  • Warmth and change in colour of the injured area is caused by increased blood flow to the inflamed area.
  • Swelling at the site of the injury is caused by an accumulation of fluid.
  • Pain is caused by the release of certain chemicals in the blood that send signals to your nerves.
  • Loss of movement and function is due to the swelling, pain, and other factors.



Use of Ice:

Using ice to treat an injury is called therapeutic cold treatment or cryotherapy. The main effect of cold treatment is the cooling of the tissues. Cold treatment also works to cause blood vessels to narrow (constrict), which decreases blood flow to the injured area, reduces swelling, reduces pain which in turn helps to relax muscles that are in spasm. The first few days after a true injury (sprain, strain), what we call an acute injury, it is best to use ice to “calm” down the inflamed, swollen, and painful injury.

Use of Heat:

Superficial heating is often achieved using a hot pack or paraffin wax applied to the injured area. Heat can help relieve muscles spasms and muscle cramping. To treat muscle aches, stiffness, and chronic pain, it is best to apply heat to the area. The heat helps to reduce the tension and “stress” in the area. It is also useful to treat trigger points (tight muscle knots).

If you apply heat to an acute injury, it can make the inflammation worse and increase your pain. If you apply ice to tight and stiff muscles, it can

Heat pad

aggravate your symptoms. There are also some conditions that should not be treated with either heat or ice. Research has shown that the use of contrast baths – a short period of a cold bath followed by a short period of hot bath, can help reduce swelling from an acute sprain or strain, decrease lactic acid build up following strenuous exercise, and reduce fatigue.

It is important to get an accurate diagnosis of your injury from your chiropractor or physician. In addition to a physical examination and a thorough understanding of your symptoms, you may be referred for additional tests. Chiropractors specialize in diagnosing, treating, and rehabilitating injuries of the spine, muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, and nerves.  Your rehabilitation may also include:

  1. Chiropractic and manual therapies to restore proper movement to the joints. Therapeutic Laser therapy may be used to reduce inflammation and pain, and promote healing of the tissues.
  2. Stretching and strengthening exercises. An active rehab program is important for long-term results. An effective exercise program will help relieve the pain, increase strength and flexibility, and improve balance and overall function.
  3. Massage therapy and Acupuncture are both helpful for providing a pain-relieving effect throughout the body, an anti-inflammatory effect, and a general sense of improved well-being.

Dr. Virginia Nsitem is a chiropractor specializing in laser therapy for spine, muscle, joint, and nerve injuries, and is a Fellow of the Royal College of Chiropractic Sports Sciences in Canada. She may be reached at (905) 275-4993, or by email at totalhealth@bellnet.ca

Stop the Pain … Before the Pain Stops You!