Guest Post: Sports Injuries – Heat or Ice?



Leslie Proctor PT, DPT is a Physical Therapist with Tidewater Physical Therapy, Inc where she has a special interest in working with children with neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy and autism.

Many of our children become active in sports and other recreational activities as they get older; with this increased activity level, unfortunately, comes the occasional sports injury. It can be very overwhelming as a parent to decide what steps to take first. Below are some simple guidelines to follow.

With an acute injury, inflammation will be present as the body attempts to repair itself. Using ice immediately after an injury will help reduce swelling and manage pain. Apply ice for 10-15 minutes at a time, placing a thin layer (such as a pillow case, cloth, or thin towel) between the ice and the skin.

Ice should be applied 3-5 times per day the first 2-3 days after the injury. After the acute phase, it is still recommended to ice at the end of the day if there is increased swelling, or after prolonged activity in order to prevent further inflammation.

On the other hand, heat tends to work well for chronic injuries. Because it increases blood flow to an area, it is not recommended for a recent injury (0-3 days) due to potential for increased swelling. However, several days after an acute injury, heat can be used to decrease stiffness and tightness. It works best when applied for 15-20 minutes at a time, and is recommended before exercise in order to enhance mobility.

If you do not have a heating pad or microwaveable hot pack, you can still apply heat by placing a moist towel in the microwave for 30 seconds. Always make sure to place a layer between the heat and the skin (such as a towel) to avoid burns. It is not recommended to use heat after exercise because of potential for increased swelling.

If you are in doubt, it is best to use ice after an injury. If you are unsure of the seriousness of an injury, always consult your physician. It is also important to contact your physician if an injury gets worse or does not improve within 48 hours.

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