Should you use heat or ice on an acute injury?

Wednesday February 12 2020


Painful knee. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

By Business Daily

Injury also known as physical trauma is damage to the body caused by an external force. This may be caused by accidents, falls, hits, weapons and sports. There are three types of injuries acute, over use and chronic injury.


This is a sudden injury that is usually associated with a traumatic event such as clashing into another player during sports, short fall from bike among others . Most acute injuries are from sports, for example muscle strains, sprains, knee injuries, achilies tendon injuries, pain along the ankle, fractures and dislocations.

The signs of an acute injury include:

  • sudden severe pain,

  • swelling

  • inability to place weight on a lower limb

  • extreme tenderness in an upper limb

  • inability to move a joint through its range of motion

  • extreme limb weakness

  • visible dislocation or a break of bone.

Managing a minor acute injury


R.I.C.E. is an acronym that stands for Rest Ice Compress Elevate. Many sports trainers and athletes use it to treat a minor acute injury.

Resting is one of the most effective ways to start your healing process. Your injured body part will be weak and vulnerable to further injury especially in the first few hours, so take a break to help it heal. Apply a bag of crushed ice.

The benefits of applying ice are the greatest in the first two days after sustaining an injury. It will help relieve pain and prevent swelling.

Wrap ice in a cloth or towel before placing it on the injured area. Leave it on the injured area for about 15-20 minutes each time, and allow your skin to return to normal temperature in between icing.

Compress the injured area with an elastic bandage to minimise swelling by preventing the build-up of fluid. The bandage should be firm, but not too tight such that it causes discomfort or interferes with blood flow.

Elevate the injury above the level of the heart. This will minimise swelling by allowing fluid to drain away from the area. If you suffered an injury to your buttocks or hips, try lying down with a pillow or wedge under your buttocks and lower back to help lift it.

Continue applying the R.I.C.E method for the first 2-3 days. Thereafter heat packs with ice. Applying heat may promote the circulation of blood to the injured area, helping to deliver oxygen and nutrients to support the healing process. When swelling reduces you remove the compression bandage and begin to gently exercise the injured area.

Start slowly with light stretching taking care not to push it to the point of pain. Keep stretching and moving for the first few weeks until you are comfortable with normal use and exercise.


This is also known as repetitive strain injury or any type of muscle or joint injury such as tendinitis (inflamed/swollen tendon) or stress fracture that is caused by repetitive trauma. Signs of an over use injury are:

  • swelling (may be unnoticeable)

  • warmth on touch

  • redness

  • Impaired function.


Apply a heat pack to painful joints and muscles. The heat stimulates your sensory receptors to block the transmission of pain signals to the brain resulting in an instant and effective pain relief. You can apply heat by having a warm bath or hot shower.


This is as a result of prolonged repetitive motion that is particularly common in endurance such as sports and constantly recurs over time. You apply the rest and ice to ease pain and inflammation. Heat is used for chronic cases to relax the muscles, stimulate blood flow and ease pain.

The writer is Physical Therapist, Chiropractic & Physiotherapy Health Centre.