We’ve all been there- you sustain a minor injury playing catch with the kids, doing yard work, or working around the house. But what constitutes ‘minor’? When should you apply ice? When should you apply heat? Jaimie Haramoto, Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC) with Pullman Regional Hospital’s Regional High School Athletic Training Program at Pullman High School, shares some insight into how to best treat minor sports injuries at home.
I have a minor sports injury, now what?
Jaimie cautions that the first thing to consider is if the injury is actually ‘minor.’ “If an injury is causing you enough pain or dysfunction that it is impacting your ability to perform your normal daily tasks, it may be time to check in with your healthcare provider,” she says.
If you determine the injury is an emergency, head to your closest Emergency Department. If the injury is an urgent musculoskeletal injury, but not emergent, Inland Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Clinic offers walk-in Express Care (no appointment required) for new bone, joint, or muscle injuries, dislocations, fractures, strains, and sprains. If the injury is persistent or ongoing, it may be time to contact your primary care provider for evaluation and a possible referral to a podiatrist or orthopedic specialist.
If you determine the injury truly is minor, the R.I.C.E. method (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) is recommended for at-home treatment.
When should I use ice on an injury?
Ice is a good option for an injury that just occurred. Examples are things like muscle strains, ligament sprains, or any injury that is causing swelling. “It’s important to limit icing times to no more than 20 minutes and be cautious with chemical cold packs as they can be too cold and cause injury to the skin,” says Jaimie.
Icing decreases your circulation to an area, which may help to limit swelling. Ice also causes a numbing effect that can help reduce any pain you may be experiencing. Do not use ice if you have a vascular or neurological condition that affects the area, Raynaud’s disease, urticaria, or over open wounds. If you are icing over areas with superficial nerves (like the elbow – “funny bone”) and you start to feel a pins and needles sensation, you should remove the ice from the area.
When should I use heat on an injury?
Heat is a great tool to use when a muscle feels “tight” or “locked up.” It can also be beneficial from chronic joint injuries or other conditions such as arthritis. Jaimie recommends that “heat should not be used for new injuries less than three days old, over skin injuries, after physical activity, or if you have a neurological condition that affects your sensation to the area.” Heating an area increases your circulation to that area and also increases the tissue’s elasticity; these reactions provide a soothing sensation and can provide pain relief.
How often should I apply heat/ice to an injury?
With new injuries ice should be applied immediately and reapplied throughout the day. Jaimie recommends that “for both heat and ice, a goal of three applications throughout the day is a good place to start, but they can be applied more often than that.” A good rule of thumb is to remove the ice or heat for a minimum of the amount of time you have it on before doing another application.
How should I deal with swelling?
Swelling is one of our biggest enemies after an injury. Swelling causes pain, dysfunction and reduced range of motion. Some easy ways to compress your injury are with an ACE wrap or compression sleeve. “The great part about these items is that you can wear them all the time; and–in fact–the more you are able to wear them, the more benefit you will get,” says Jaimie.
Elevation is also a simple way to reduce swelling. All you have to think about here is propping your injury up above the level of your heart- a great time to do this is when you are seated or even when sleeping.
Should I limit activity after a minor injury?
As simple as it sounds, rest can be tricky. “There is a bit of a balance to navigate here between resting too much and pushing your injury too hard. In general, movement and exercise are good for us and are also good for us as we heal from an injury,” says Jaimie.
However, if we do too much, we can cause further injury and cause the injury to take longer to heal. A good rule to follow is to avoid movements and activities causing a significant amount of pain or that you aren’t able to do without altering how you normally would do that motion – for example, limping.
As always, consult with your primary care provider about any changes in your health, recurring injuries, or before starting any new medications or treatments.