This is tale I’ve heard many times in my practice, with slight variations. The names and details have been changed to protect the innocent. It all starts when Joe strains his back lifting something heavy while in an awkward position. Later, at the end of the day he is feeling stiff and painful when he gets out of his chair. He pops a couple of over-the-counter pain relievers but doesn’t feel much better, so just before hitting the sack, he jumps in the hot tub for a good soak. A short while later, his muscles are warm, soft and relaxed, and he feels pain-free and limber as he climbs out of the hot tub. As he dozes off to sleep, he thinks how glad he is that his back feels fine now. Little does he know this story has a villain.
The next morning, Joe turns to get out of bed and seizes up with pain. Trying again more slowly, he realizes his back muscles are in spasm, and he can’t get out of bed. What happened? Here’s the culprit in this mystery: inflammation. When you have a new strain or sprain injury, chemicals are released into your tissues that cause pain, swelling, heat and sometimes redness. This inflammation is important – it’s necessary for healing. But too much of this good thing can cause more pain and slower healing. In Joe’s case, he didn’t realize that as the heat was relaxing his muscles and improving circulation, it was also triggering an increase in inflammation that wouldn’t hit him until later. If heat is the villain in this story of inflammation, then who is the hero? Ice.
Not as glamorous as its relaxing cousin heat, ice is a much better bet with a new injury. Many sources recommend ice for only the first 24 hours of a new injury, but the fact is that as long as there is swelling, redness or heat from an injury, ice should be used instead of heat. In fact, research shows that strain/sprain injuries can heal stronger and up to three times faster with use of ice. Consult your health care provider for your specific injury, and in the mean time use the 20/20 rule: put ice on for 20 minutes or until numbness (whichever comes first), and take at least 20 minutes between ice applications. Keep inflammation in it’s place, and heal up properly with ice!