Q: Is it better to apply hot or cold when you have pain?
A: This is a loaded question without an easy answer but, as a general rule, ice is best for acute injuries and inflammation and heat is best for sore muscles and stiffness.
It all depends on the type of injury, it’s severity and when it was sustained. Within the first 24-48 hours of being injured, there’s almost always inflammation so stick with cold but not for too long! Applications of 5-10 minutes is plenty. It’s fine to use the numbing properties of ice to take the edge off the discomfort but your body needs those inflammatory substances for healing and too much ice will get in the way of that and ultimately prolong the healing process.
After that, as inflammation eases, heat will loosen the injured tissue and help keep it pliable as it continues to heal and it’s essential to keep moving! A little discomfort is fine and to be expected but you should back off if there’s any spasm or the pain is intense. The last thing you want to do is be still for too long as your
Joints and connective tissues (ligaments and tendons) are a bit tricky since they don’t get a lot of blood flow so swelling can remain deep within the tissue for longer periods of time. After the initial injury or for structures that don’t seem to be recovering you can use a combination of heat and cold. Alternating between hot and cold applications will maximize circulation and clear any residual inflammation. Just make sure you always end with the cold application and either pat or air dry (no rubbing).
Remember, these are only guidelines and there are exceptions to every rule. For more information, just ask.