One of the most widespread recommendations for treating sports injuries or discomfort is the application of cold or heat to the affected area. It is also paradoxical that, on many occasions, we receive advice to apply concepts as opposed as these two to treat the same injury. The effects of dealing with low and high temperatures are also very different. While heat has a vasodilator effect, promoting blood flow in our tissues, cold has a diametrically opposite effect. It enhances vasoconstriction, i.e., the reduction of blood flow to the affected area. We can therefore say that it contributes to a reduction of inflammatory processes.

One stimulus for everything

In this situation, what is the best thing to do when we are injured? Cold or heat? Because based on cross-recommendations, there is a lot of confusion about what is really effective. Well, the first thing we need to clarify in this situation is for which type of injury each of these two stimuli is suitable. Obviously not all injuries are the same and therefore do not require the same restorative treatment. This is where it makes sense to have heat or cold treatments to mitigate the effects of a possible injury or discomfort.

When to apply cold to an injury

In terms of the effects of cold, we should apply it when we have a very recent injury, in other words, immediately after it occurs. It is especially interesting to apply cold when, in addition, in those moments after the injury occurs, we also experience inflammation in the area.

Cold in these cases reduces inflammation, pain and promotes recovery.

On which lesions is it most appropriate to apply cold?

To reduce tissue damage and pain, cold is effective for the following injuries:

  • Sprains
  • Muscle overload
  • Bone fractures
  • Tendinitis
  • Fibre rupture
  • Dislocations

How to apply cold

As a general rule, cold should be applied in the acute phase of an injury, i.e., in the immediate aftermath. Depending on the injury, this is a maximum period of up to 3 days or 72 hours after the injury. Do it also with fragmented applications, no more than 20 minutes long and every 2 hours.

Do not apply directly to the skin.

When to apply heat to an injury

Knowing the effects of thermotherapy or heat application, it should be applied to an injury that is in the chronic phase, i.e., already advanced always when the inflammation has disappeared, which usually occurs no sooner than 72 hours after the injury.

The application of heat lowers blood pressure, causing a sedation and relaxation effect that reduces pain.

On which injuries is heat most appropriate?

To reduce tissue damage and pain, heat is effective for the following injuries:

  • Chronic pathologies
  • Muscle overload
  • Spasms 
  • Arthritis
  • Stiffness

How to apply heat

It is not recommended to apply heat for periods longer than 20 minutes and less frequently than two hours between applications.

As with cold, it should not be applied directly to the skin.

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