Dr Christopher Jones is an experienced osteopath who has worked with the Australian Athletics Team and has treated numerous World and Olympic Champion Athletes during his career. He has seen firsthand the importance of injury prevention and management for his patients. He explains the how and why of using ice and heat for injury management.
A lot of times when people develop a new pain or injury they are unsure about what to do and are worried they might make it worse. It’s common for people to either use ice or heat on an injury to try to obtain some pain relief, and they can both be very helpful. If you aren’t necessarily sure which one suits your condition best, here are the guidelines I usually follow.
If it’s a new (acute) injury (first 48-72 hours), you would be more likely to use ice. For example, if you sprain your ankle, you should first apply ice to the area. Ice will help decrease pain and inflammation whereas in this initial injury phase, heat can increase it.
Ice may also be helpful for older injuries if the area is sometimes inflamed after activity. An example of this might be shin splints, if the pain gets reaggravated after going for a run.
Ice packs are fantastic as they can mould to the shape of the affected area so that it’s fully covered. Ice should not be applied for periods longer than 15 minutes. So a protocol you can follow is 15 minutes with ice on, then 15 minutes with the ice off, and then another 15 minutes with the ice. This can be repeated every 2 hours.
Older injuries are usually better served by heat, which will help increase the blood flow in the area. Heat can be a useful adjunct to mobility, such as stretching exercises or self massage using a spiky ball or foam roller.
This makes heat packs really useful when warming up before exercise. A good protocol in this case might be locally applying the heat pack to the affected area for 5-10 minutes, prior to jogging and stretching. The heat will accelerate the improvements in pain and stiffness, and reduce the risk of injury provided by warming up.
The benefit of heat packs is that they let you apply the heat directly to the affected area so the benefits are focused on where they’re most needed.
Another application you can try is alternating cold and hot (not boiling) water on the site of an injury. This will open and close the blood vessels to stimulate blood flow, which can have the effect of reducing inflammation in an area. A good protocol for this would be ice pack for 3-5 minutes, then heat for 3-5 minutes, and you can repeat this up to three times. It’s a fantastic way to improve recovery after exercise.
Discontinue ice or heat if they cause you pain.
BodyICE Recovery Packs can be used for both ice and heat and are designed to mould around injured joints and body parts. The range combines ice bags using real ice or hot water, with elastic neoprene supports for comfortable compression.
Written by Dr Christopher Jones (Osteopath)
M. Osteo, B. App. Sci (Osteo), B. Sports Science (Ex Sci).
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