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Sprained Ankle – Heat, or ice?

An explanation of when to use ice and when to use heat for an ankle sprain.

Sprains can be tricky to navigate. Often occurring around ankles, knees, and wrists, even mild sprains can result in discomfort for days, and long term side-effects if not cared for properly. These injuries sometimes aren’t severe enough for a doctor visit, but still leave you with care questions that can be tough to answer on your own. While it can be impossible to rest completely, there are some things you can do to mitigate pain and give yourself the best chance of healing quickly and safely.

One question we often hear is: How do I know when to apply ice vs. heat? 
We’ve got a simple way to remember, but let’s break it down first:

Applying ice constricts and limits blood flow to the area which is an effective way to prevent swelling. Plus, the ice can temporarily numb any pain you may be feeling.
With heat, our blood vessels expand to take in more blood which can cause swelling, but can also promote mobility if an injury has left you with a stiff joint.

With this in mind, let’s look at a timeline:
For the first 2-3 days post injury, stick to ice. We want to limit the blood flow to the area to put a halt to excessive swelling. Apply ice for 15 minute increments throughout the day, and don’t forget to provide a barrier between the cold pack and your skin (a towel, for example). After that initial period of icing, you’ll want to apply heat to promote mobility before any activity and ice it afterwards to bring the swelling back down.

Just like with any exercise, you want to warm-up beforehand and do a cool down afterwards. Icing and heating a sprain works exactly the same way. So always remember to warm-up and cool-down.

After two weeks, if it doesn’t feel like your pain is resolving it may be time to see a doctor. At MedAmerica Physical Therapy, our team of qualified physical therapists can assess any injury and help you regain the joy of living without pain.