Should I Use Ice or Heat on My Injury?

young woman with an ankle injury

We are all prone to injuries such as ankle sprains, muscle strains, back pain, etc so it is important to understand proper at-home injury care. Knowing when to use heat or ice on an injury can help decrease your healing time and pain levels.


Acute Injuries

An acute injury is sudden and spontaneous, resulting from a fall, hit, or another type of trauma. The first rule of thumb is to never use heat on an acute injury. That extra heat can cause an increase in inflammation and delay proper healing. Applying an ice pack within the first 48 hours of an injury can help numb pain, relieve inflammation, and limit bruising. Keep your ice pack moving to avoid ice burns and do not exceed 20 minutes.

A common acute injury is a sprained ankle or knee injury. The RICE method is an important protocol to help relieve pain, reduce swelling, and counteract the body’s initial response to the injury.

RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.


Stop using the injured body part! Protect the area and avoid any activity that is painful or may have caused the injury. Continued activity could cause further damage.


Use ice for the first 48-72 hours after an injury. Apply ice several times a day for 20 minutes at a time, followed by one hour “off.” The cold will contract injured capillaries and blood vessels to help stop internal bleeding. Do not apply ice directly to the skin.


Wrap the injured body part firmly with an elasticized bandage, compression sleeve, or cloth – especially when you are more active. This will help speed up healing time by reducing swelling around the injury.


Elevate the injured body part above the level of your heart to decrease swelling and joint pain.


Heat is a great treatment for chronic conditions such as overuse injuries, and before participating in activities to help relax and loosen tissues and increase blood flow. Do not use heat after an activity, acute injury, or where swelling is involved. Swelling is caused by bleeding in the tissue, and heat only draws more blood to the area, which can increase healing times.

Be sure to use heating pads in moderation to avoid burns, and never leave one on for extended periods of time or while sleeping.

Signs of a more serious injury include:

  • Popping or crunching sound
  • Severe pain or swelling
  • Cannot stand or support the injured area
  • Instability in joint

If your pain persists or you experience any of the above, make an appointment with one of our orthopedic specialists or use The Center’s NOWcare walk-in clinic, open Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. No appointment necessary.