To Ice or Not to Ice: That is the Question

Woman at desk with back painYou’ve been injured in a car accident. You’ve made your appointment with Accident and Injury because you know it is the best place to be treated for neck, shoulder, back, or knee pain. You know their caring, professional staff will soon have you feeling better and on the road to recovery. In the meantime, what can you do to feel better and help the recovery process before that first appointment?

First it’s important to understand the different approaches to treating an acute injury and a chronic injury. An injury is considered acute in the first 24-48 hours. With an acute injury, most of us want to self-treat with whatever we think feels good at the time—which often means putting heat on it. But heat will actually add inflammation and swelling to the injury thus increasing symptoms and extending the time it takes to heal.

With an acute injury, you want to reduce inflammation and swelling, and the best way to do that is with an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen and ice. As ice cools down the skin and muscles, blood vessels are constricted and fluids are pushed from the injured area reducing bruising, swelling, and discomfort. But (fortunately) that doesn’t mean you should be icing the area for hours. It’s best to apply ice for only 10 minutes every hour. (Longer periods of icing actually have a negative effect.) After the ice is removed, the area warms, blood vessels expand, and new blood flows in stimulating the healing process. The more this cycle is repeated, the faster the injury will heal.

Chronic injuries—or injuries that persist over a long period of time—should be treated with moist heat. A common symptom of chronic injuries is lack of blood flow to the afflicted area, and moist heat opens up blood vessels and increases blood flow. Moist heat can be applies for up to 20 minutes every hour.

It’s important to remember that ice or heat applied directly to the skin can actually burn it, so always have some kind of barrier, like a towel, between the skin and the ice or heat source. And it’s important to remember to keep that appointment with Accident and Injury for your best chance at a speedy and thorough recovery!