It seems like we have all been there. It’s a beautiful day; you get up early, get dressed for success in your favorite pair of running shoes, and head out the door for a quick run. You’re feeling great. What a way to start the day! Then it happens – it may be quick, or it may be gradual, but it happens. A nagging pain starts in your shin, you feel something pop in your ankle, or your knee gives out with little warning. Perhaps you finish your run feeling the freedom of the runner’s high, but you get back home and your hips start to ache or your calf muscles tighten up. Uh-oh. Now what? Do you apply an ice pack? Maybe a hot pack? Which one might work better? Which do you choose? Does it even matter?
- Ice packs are generally used for NEW injuries that have a rapid onset and are fairly short-lived. For example, a sprained ankle, a recent bruise, a sore wrist or elbow after playing a sport, or at the first signs of aching joins for arthritis or tendonitis. If you see swelling, find some ice!
- COLD reduces swelling and eases inflammation and pain by numbing the nerves. If you are suddenly injured (i.e. stepping off a curb and twisting an ankle), applying an ice pack can help to provide immediate relief. Ice is a vaso-constrictor (it causes the blood vessels to narrow) and it limits internal bleeding at the injury site.
- Need an ice pack right away? Grab a frozen bag of peas (or any vegetable, I usually use broccoli) right out of your freezer as a fast, inexpensive way to treat the pain.
- Apply ice for 20 MINUTES at a time. DO NOT wrap ice pack in a towel/cloth. You must apply the ice directly to the skin to get the full benefits of icing. A towel or cloth creates a barrier, thus preventing the cold from reaching the injury. Remove for at least 20 minutes before reapplying. You can ice an acute injury several times a day for up to three days.
- Cold therapy is also helpful in treating some overuse injuries or chronic pain in athletes. An athlete who has chronic knee pain (like me) that increases after running may want to ice the injured area after each run to reduce or prevent inflammation. It’s not helpful to ice a chronic injury before exercise.
Crank up the HEAT!
- A hot pack is used tor CHRONIC (ongoing) pain or muscle soreness/stiffness/tightness that develops slowly and is persistent or can even be substituted if the area being treated is especially sensitive to cold. For example, heat may be applied to a strained neck muscle or area of the body that is suffering from overuse.
- Athletes with chronic pain or injuries may use heat therapy before exercise to increase the elasticity of joint connective tissues and to stimulate blood flow. Heat can also help relax tight muscles or muscle spasms. Don’t apply heat after exercise. After a workout, ice is the better choice on a chronic injury.
- Heat increases circulation and raises skin temperature, so you should not apply heat to acute injuries or injuries that show signs of inflammation.
- Apply heat to an injury using a moist, wet towel or cloth 15 or 20 MINUTES minutes at a time and use enough layers between your skin and the heating source to prevent burns.
As you know, injuries can be serious, so if they do not improve, are still causing you pain or even get worse within 48 hours of the onset, please contact your doctor.
Until the next mile marker,