After suffering any type of injury or undergoing any type of surgery, it’s crucial to control pain and swelling. Without this, your progress with improving range of motion, strength, and returning to your prior level of function will be extremely limited.
This is where use of ice, heat and/or compression comes into play.
Each has its own pros and cons, and is appropriate to use in certain circumstances, while not so appropriate in others.
In the acute, or early, stages of an injury or surgery, you very likely will have inflammation occurring in the injured area. While this is a natural and necessary part of healing, if inflammation doesn’t remain controlled or continues for too long, it will increase your pain, swelling and lengthen recovery time.
Ice constricts your blood vessels, slowing down blood flow to the area it’s applied to. It will help to reduce pain by numbing the area applied to. Swelling will also decrease, which will help reduce tightness in the injured area, and get your muscles back to moving and contracting the way they should be.
Never apply ice for a sustained period directly on the skin. Make sure to use some type of skin barrier, such as a towel or pillow case.
Apply ice to the injured area for no more than 20 minutes at a time to avoid developing frost bite. Take AT LEAST a 30-minute break, if not longer, prior to icing again.
Heat has the opposite physiological effects of ice.
Heat dilates the blood vessels and increases speed of circulation to the area it’s applied to.
While heat is usually more appealing than ice, it should not be used in the early stages after a traumatic injury or surgery when active swelling and inflammation are present.
Heat is helpful and appropriate for relaxing and soothing muscles that may be sore, tight, or cramping. If you have pain related to muscle tension, then heat is usually a good option.
Similar to ice, don’t use heating pads for more than 20 minutes at a time. Take a minimum of a 30-minute break, if not longer, prior to re-applying the heat.
Be very cautious of the length of time using heat when you have high blood pressure. If used for too long, it can have adverse effects on your blood pressure due to the vasodilation that occurs in the blood vessels from the heat.
A general tip for use of both heat and ice is to be very cautious with these modalities if you have any impaired or long-term loss of sensation in the area these are applied to. A lack of sensation in the area being treated can leave you more susceptible for having an abnormal skin reaction if these are left on for too long, and not be aware of it.
Compression is another option that can be very helpful for pain and swelling management after an injury or surgery. Compression will also protect the affected area from further injury.
Compression will improve blood flow and circulation to an area, helping to control inflammation, which allows necessary nutrients into an injured region to help it heal and recover faster.
There are many forms of compression that can be used for recovery. These include bandaging (e.g., ACE wrap), compression wrap, a brace, a compression sleeve or stocking.
Your particular reason for needing compression will also determine how long and how often you use it.