If you are an athlete or work out regularly, chances are you may develop a sports related injury at some point in your life.

Do you know how to take care of that injury? Whether to use ice or heat to promote healing? First, let’s explore the two types of pain that injuries can cause. One type of pain is acute and the other is chronic.

Chronic pain is just what it sounds like; pain that is slow to develop, comes and goes and usually is recurring over an extended period of time.

Acute pain is often the result of sudden, sharp traumatic injuries like a sprained ankle or a pulled muscle. The pain can develop rapidly or increase tremendously as the day goes on. Most people can personally attest to acute pain. Have you ever been working out and feel a “pop” and then your arm or leg started to hurt immediately? Did you think that the pain would just go away if you stopped doing what you were doing? If you still feel the pain even after you’ve stopped working out, use ice on the affected area to decrease the inflammation and swelling.

Ice is best for acute pain because it causes the blood vessels to narrow and decreases the sensation of pain and the instance of swelling. It’s best to wrap an ice pack in a thin towel or washcloth and place it on the area you are experiencing pain and hold it for about 10-15 minutes. Keep to 10-15 minute increments because you want to allow your skin to return to a normal body temp before you continue icing. Otherwise, you may have another problem on your hands (frost bite). You can do an ice application up to three times per day.

Ice isn’t just for acute pain.

Chronic pain suffers can use ice as well. It’s best to ice an area affected by chronic pain after you perform activities that aggravate your pain. For example, if your shoulder hurts from doing push-ups or planks, it’s best to ice that area after you have completed those activities in order to prevent swelling or inflammation. Never put ice directly on an area where you experience any kind of pain. For the best results, use an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel, a cold compress, or a good-ole fashioned bag of frozen veggies.

Heat therapy is used more for chronic pain sufferers.

For muscles that are sore and stiff but aren’t swollen or inflamed, heat can help loosen the area and provide some relief from the pain. However a big tip for active individuals is this: DON’T apply heat after a workout. Ice is best for relief from pain after a workout. Instead use heat on non swollen areas. You can use heat for 15-20 minutes per application. Just as you don’t apply ice directly to your skin, you don’t want to apply a heat source directly to your skin. Some great heat sources are athletic heat pads that come with a layer of protection surrounding a clay reusable heating source. A moist hot towel will do the trick as well.

When to seek medical help

If after doing this, you are experiencing pain that is neither decreasing or leveling, the best advice is to see a doctor. Now that you know when to use ice and heat, practice and workout safely to the best of your ability to avoid injury. I am not a doctor and the information in this article is just advice and should not replace seeking medical attention.