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Work Out Like a Pro

How to Use Ice Wraps and Cold Compression for Recovery

Have you ever gotten home from a long run and felt a pain in your knee, or wound up with a stiff shoulder after tossing the ball around with your kids?

Many people's first inclination when they feel an injury coming on is to apply a heating pad to loosen up the affected body parts. But as it turns out, that might not be the best way to treat the problem. Here's a look at why ice wraps and cold compression are often a better option.

Hot and Cold

Heat causes vasodilation, the medical term for what happens when blood vessels dilate and get larger. This allows for more blood to flow to the affected area, which can increase inflammation and stiffness in the short term. Cold compression, on the other hand, causes vasoconstriction: The diameter of the blood vessels decreases. This results in reduced blood flow, which mitigates inflammation and thereby reduces stiffness and soreness.

So instead of that heating pad, it may be a better idea to pull out an ice wrap and keep the injured area cold for a little while. But what's the best strategy for using ice wraps or other compression techniques? It depends on the type of injury you're dealing with.

Understanding Injury Types

Musculoskeletal injuries can be either acute or chronic. Acute injuries are usually caused by exposure to sudden-onset, high-intensity forces. Injuries of this type include bruises, bicep strains, and finger sprains, and they're generally accompanied by pain, tenderness, redness, warmness, and/or swelling.

Chronic injuries tend to be related to overuse and are typically caused by long-duration, low-intensity forces. Examples include tennis elbow and shoulder bursitis. In contrast, chronic recurring injuries are acute injuries that occur multiple times, such as those pesky ankle sprains you always seem to get when playing basketball.

When Cold Works Best

Typically, ice wraps are best for treating acute injuries. The acute phase of an injury generally lasts for the first four or so days. During this time, and especially during the first 72 hours following an injury, cold compression helps limit inflammation and control pain.

The best method for treating an acute injury with cold compression is the RICE technique: rest, ice, compression, elevation. Rest prevents the injury from getting worse and promotes tissue healing; an ice wrap or other cold compression method reduces blood flow to the affected area; and elevation also helps limit blood flow with the help of gravity. These combined methods help reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation.

After the acute phase, functional exercises can help rehabilitate the affected body part. A doctor might also recommend that you apply some heat at this point to help your tissues heal.

How to Ice Wrap

When you use cold compression, you want to apply ice for long enough so that the injured area starts to feel numb. Longer application doesn't mean better results: Keep it around 10 minutes -- no more than 20 -- and try to apply the ice wrap three times daily during the first 72 hours. Keep a piece of cloth between your skin and the ice pack to prevent frostbite.

Injuries happen to the best of us, but with a little know-how, you can help your body recover. Next time you go to the golfing range and come back with a sore neck, ditch the heating pad and start the RICE process. While you're at it, spend some time learning proper body mechanics to better prevent these injuries from occurring in the first place.

Posted in Work Out Like a Pro

Dr. Rami Hashish achieved his doctorate of physical therapy from the University of Washington School of Medicine and holds a doctorate in biokinesiology from the University of Southern California. Following his Ph.D. work, Dr. Hashish cofounded a footwear technology startup, JavanScience, which develops customizable footwear to help relieve and prevent foot and leg problems. Dr. Hashish is also active in the clinic, serving as the director of physical therapy for Regenerative Medicine - Pacific Pain & Wellness Group, at Urban Med in downtown Los Angeles.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.