Heat or Ice? Injury Treatment 101

by Kevin O'Hara D.C.
There are three stages of healing from an injury that are universal and indisputable. First, there is inflammation, which is sustained immediately through post-injury up to seven days. Next is the repair process, which can take from 48 hours up to 6-8 weeks. Finally, there is the remodeling stage. This can take 14 days up to a year— possibly longer.

While inflammation is important in healing, it is also key to limit the extent of it. Only small amounts are needed to stimulate the repair process. It is also necessary to protect the non-damaged tissue as well.


  • Protect the area: use tape, a splint, or an elastic bandage
  • Rest the area: stop using it or slow down
  • Ice the area 15 minutes on and 45 minutes off
  • Compression if possible
  • Elevate the injured area

Here’s the deal in a nutshell. Muscle movement helps circulate blood through the body. When the injury occurs, the inflammation process begins, sending blood to the injured area to begin repair. It becomes swollen and painful to move as the body restricts motion to prevent further injury. Using heat to this already inflamed area will bring more blood to it; therefore, increasing the swelling, pain, and immobility. Although the heat may feel good at the moment, it is actually making the injury worse— much worse. SO NO HEAT!

Heat is typically utilized for chronic conditions; injuries that are several weeks old or longer. In this time frame, the swelling of the original infarction should have subsided and applied heat should bring blood and nutrients to the damaged tissues to aid in their repair.

Some people assume if using ice for a short period of time is good, an extended amount of time must be better. WRONG. If you ice an area for longer than 15-20 minutes, your body reacts as if that part of you is freezing, sending blood to the area to protect and warm it up; therefore, increasing the swelling.

The bottom line: New injury = ICE. Old injury = HEAT.

This snippet is for informational purposes and a general guideline— not intended as a diagnostic tool. However, with some conditions or diseases, ice or heat may be a contraindication. Therefore, an injury should be evaluated by a professional.

Dr. O’Hara’s office is located at 940 S. Arthur Avenue in Arlington Heights. For more information, call 847/577-3597 or visit www.oharachiro.com.


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