Dispelling myths: Should you ice or heat an injury?

By Vanessa Racine, social media coordinator
As we go through life, bumps, bruises, scrapes, and falls are often part of the human experience. Whether through unexpected slips and falls, sports injuries, or an occasional case of clumsiness, some misadventures can lead to more serious injuries to bones, muscles and joints.

Someone holding an ice pack to their kneeBe prepared

Have first aid kits readily available in your home and in your car. Store your kit in a dry place and replace used or outdated items regularly. Find out what a first aid kit should contain. If you’re not at home and your own first aid kid is not nearby, look for one at the location you’re in.
Prevent common bone, muscle, and joint injuries with proactive tips:
  • Whatever the activity, make sure you wear all required or recommended safety equipment (helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, etc.)
  • Know your limits and take plenty of breaks to avoid over-exerting yourself. Take a rest if you feel yourself becoming tired, dizzy, thirsty or frustrated.  
Signs and symptoms of muscle, bone, and joint injuries to look for include:
  • Pain, deformity, swelling or bruises
  • Limited use or inability to use the injured body part
  • Broken bone or bone fragments that stick out of the skin
  • A sensation or sound of bones grating
  • Possible muscle cramps
  • The sound of a snap or a pop when the injury happened

When should someone seek medical care?

Because bone, muscle and joint injuries can range from very minor to life threatening, it is very important to be able to determine if you need to seek immediate medical attention or call 9-1-1.
While you may be hesitant to call emergency medical services (EMS), use your best judgment to evaluate the situation and trust your instincts. If you think that it’s an emergency situation, it probably is one – so call EMS/9-1-1 to get professional help immediately.
Additionally, if the injury appears to be serious with severe pain, deformity or significant swelling, and especially if it affects the head or the spine, don’t wait. Make your way to the emergency room right away.

Treat the injury using the RICE method:

REST: Ask the person to stay still and rest comfortably.  
IMMOBILIZATION: Immobilize the injured body part in the position in which it was found.  
COLD: Apply a cold compress to the injured area for 20 minutes every hour for the first 24 to 48 hours. If you’re using ice cubes, wrap them in a cloth or towel to prevent direct contact with the skin.  
ELEVATION: If possible and not too painful, elevate the injured body part above the heart.  

Myth: To speed up healing, you should apply heat to a muscle, bone, or joint injury

You want to relieve pain and discomfort, but question yourself: do you apply ice or heat to the injury? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who’s not quite sure of the best approach.
Although heat is often used to relieve pain associated with chronic bone, muscle, and joint disorders like arthritis, it isn’t the best course of action for an injury of this type. Applying heat causes the blood vessels in the area in question to dilate (open), which brings more blood to the area and increases swelling.
Cold, on the other hand, causes the blood vessels to constrict (narrow), which reduces the blood flow to the area and helps reduce swelling. Furthermore, applying ice slows down nerve impulses and helps reduce pain.  So, in this case, icing a bone, muscle or joint injury is the best approach.

The first 24 to 48 hours: ice, ice, baby

After a minor injury, it is normal to see almost immediate swelling that can generally last for 48 hours. Icing the injury as soon as possible will prevent further swelling and reduce the pain.
Apply ice to the area for 20 minutes at a time every hour for up to 48 hours to reduce pain and swelling, if it does not cause the injured person any discomfort.  
Standard ice cubes will do the job to ice an injury, as well as other options like a bag of frozen vegetables. If you use ice (or anything frozen), wrap it in a thin towel or compress before applying it to the injured area. This helps avoid frostbite to the skin. Also, avoid rubbing ice or a cold compress on the affected area. Do not press the ice pack hard, simply hold it steadily in place.

After the first 48 hours: heat is optional

In general, swelling will stabilize two days after an injury. Inside, the body is working to repair the tissues and reduce swelling. At this time, or later if inflammation persists, applying heat is recommended because it increases blood flow, encourages the healing process, and relieves pain.
Gain the knowledge and confidence to provide first aid to yourself and others by taking a Canadian Red Cross first aid course.  Keep life-saving tips in your pocket by downloading the free, interactive Red Cross First Aid App to your device.

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