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POP QUIZ: If you’ve tweaked your shoulder after a heavy lifting session, should you reach for an ice pack or a heating pad? How about speeding recovery after a long training run? Or if you’ve woken up with an aching back? Read on to determine when it pays to go for the cold or stick with heat.
“The advantage of ice is that it provides almost immediate pain relief,” says Joseph Garry, M.D., associate professor of sports medicine at the University of Minnesota. The trade-off: it can also make you feel a bit stiff, ice constricts blood vessels, which prevents blood from accumulating around an injured area, thereby reducing inflammation. But within 15 to 20 minutes after removing the ice pack, the swelling and pain may return.
Best for: Acute injuries, especially in the first 48 to 72 hours, for up to six weeks.
Keep in mind: If you’re icing an area that has nerves that run close to the skin’s surface (such as the outside of the knee or elbow), don’t keep the ice pack on for more than about 10 minutes at a time. “Some nerves can be affected when exposed to the cold for too long,” says Garry. Ice numbers the area, so you may not feel the damage. Avoid using ice around arthritic joints because it will increase stiffness and limit range of motion.
Heat increases blood flow, causing muscle temperatures to rise and improving flexibility. “There are some studies that suggest low-level superficial heat just after an acute injury is just as good as ice,” says Garry, with premise that the body is its own best repairer of damage and will speed healing on its own. However, adding heat to an injury may increase swelling.
Best for: Chronic injuries such as arthritis.
Keep in mind: For injuries that lost more than a few weeks, try applying some heat before exercise to increase flexibility. “Warming up the muscles helps you move more easily,” says Garry.
The right recovery tool, using either cold or hot therapy, can help speed healing and reduce discomfort. Below, a few aids to help you feel better faster.
Just wet and freeze the wrap for 20 minutes, then strap it on for combined ice and compression therapy. ($18-28, drcoolrecovery.com)
The heavy-duty wrap helps position the get pack to fully surround the join, so you get relief from all angles, along with added compression to increase healing. Also available for knees elbows, and shoulders. ($60, shockdoctor.com)
Reap the beneifts of heat and rolling in one product: The ball helps reduce chemical buildup within muscles so you recover faster than with heat or pressure alone. ($16, qworkoutrecovery.com)
This handheld device allows you to target any body part that is giving you trouble. LED lights help improve the rate your body heals by reducing inflammation and boosting blood circulation deep in muscle tissue. ($99, revivelighttherapy.com)
Although athletes have long gritted their teeth and immersed themselves in an ice bath to help speed recovery after a tough workout, a new study says that when it comes to strength gains, an ice bath may actually do more harm than good. Research published in the Journal of Physiology found subjects who performed a warm-down on an exercise bike after strength training had increased muscle strength and mass compared with those who endured a 10-minute post-workout ice bath. The cold-water immersion may have reduced long-term strength gains because of the reduced blood flow to the muscles.