If you’re athletically active and prone to the occasional sports injury, you’re probably familiar with the RICE treatment method for acute injury. If not, RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Using this method, the injured area is rested for 48 hours, compressed (with bandaging) to reduce swelling, and elevated 6 to 10 inches above the heart.
However, heat treatment is not part of the RICE method, and you may not know when it’s best to use an ice pack or a heating pad to treat certain orthopedic injuries – so let’s clear up any confusion.
When to Use Ice Treatment
Icing – whether used as part of the RICE method or not – is most often used for acute injury: a sudden, sharp pain, or one that results from a traumatic incident or illness to a specific part of the body. Icing helps reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation.
The inflammation is your body’s natural healing response to an injury or infection. Blood vessels and tissues swell to allow immune cells to reach the damaged site. However, if the inflammation isn’t controlled, it can cause intense pain and disability.
Ice application helps minimize the swelling and reduce bleeding within the affected tissues, thus alleviating pain and muscle spasms. It can also be used to treat chronic overuse conditions, such as tendonitis, tendinosis, or bursitis – and is effective for arthritis, neuralgia, and migraine headaches.
When icing an injury, be sure to follow these safety measures:
- Don’t place ice directly on your skin. Instead, use a cloth barrier like a thin towel.
- Don’t keep the ice pack in one area for more than a few minutes. Keep moving it to avoid frostbite.
- Ice the injury for 20 minutes max at a time, several (4-8) times throughout the day.
- If you experience a painful, prickly sensation or your skin appears bright pink or red, remove the pack.
- If you have a heart condition, do not apply an ice pack to your left shoulder.
When to Use Heat Treatment
The purpose of heat treatment is to help relax tissues, loosen stiff joints, and stimulate blood flow to an injured joint or muscle. As such, it is used to treat chronic conditions, typically an overuse injury before an action is performed, and for musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis or an existing muscle strain. Using a steamed towel or a moist heating pad may intensify heat penetration to affected muscles and provide better pain relief than dry heat.
Other types of heating application include an electric heating pad or a heated towel fresh from the dryer. However, if you use an electric heating pad, choose one where you can control the temperature to avoid burns.
When using heat to treat a chronic injury, follow these safety measures:
- Don’t use heat to treat an acute injury.
- Don’t apply heat after an activity.
- Only use moderate heat that does not cause sweating or discomfort.
- Don’t use heat where there is swelling.
- Don’t use heat on broken or damaged skin.
Orthopedic Expertise in San Antonio
At the Center for Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, we provide the finest patient-centered care for sports injuries and other musculoskeletal conditions. Whether you need an orthopedic surgeon or rehabilitation from a debilitating illness or injury, our physicians and staff are here to help.
We are located next to Methodist Texsan Hospital in Balcones Heights. Call us today at (210) 692-7400 to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, or simply request an appointment using our online form. We look forward to helping you improve your orthopedic health.