Ice, Heat & Epsom Salts
One of the most common questions people ask when the topic of injuries is raised is, "Should I use ice or heat on my injury?" Here's the general rule of thumb - You'll never go wrong if you put ice on an ache or pain but you may go wrong if you use heat.
To be more specific, whenever you have a new or acute injury you want to make sure you get ice on it as soon as possible. If there's a lot of swelling associated with your injury, use ice. Ice is very important for the first 72 hours after an injury. Ice has a couple of benefits:
It reduces swelling - this will decrease the amount of time an injury needs to heal
Ice reduces swelling by decreasing blood flow to an area. While some blood flow is required to bring the healing cells to the injured area, the body always overdoes it and sends too much blood, that's why we can reduce blood flow without too much concern
Ice also numbs the area, thereby reducing pain
When using ice, expect it to be uncomfortable at first. You typically experience the following sensations - Cold, Aching, Burning, Numbness. Once you hit Numbness you should remove the ice for 5-10 minutes. We typically recommend you use ice for 10 minutes on, then 10 minutes off and repeat this 5-6 times before taking a break. Good examples of ice packs include a bag of frozen vegetables, ice chips in a ziploc bag, water frozen in a paper or foam cup (just tear away the edge of the cup), or commercial gel packs. You can try making your own gel pack by mixing equal parts water and rubbing alcohol in a ziploc and freezing it. Injuries such as sprained ankles which require and ice and compression respond well to tensor or Ace bandages which have been soaked in ice water before being wrapped around the swollen area. Never apply ice directly to the skin - you should always use a thin cloth or towel between your skin and the ice to prevent frostbite. The exception to this rule may be the frozen vegetable bags which sometimes do not get as cold as pure ice.
When Should I Use Heat?
The best advice I can give is only use heat if you're directed by a healthcare practitioner. That's the safest answer. Here's the full story: We use heat when we want to increase blood flow to an area. It's usually used in chronic conditions. For example, if you strained a hamstring 2 months ago and it's still very tight and sore, applying heat to area will bring blood to the muscle and loosen things up thereby allowing you to stretch the muscle easier. One important note is to always use moist heat. Dry heat, like what you might find with an electric heating pad, really only heats the surface of the skin. It doesn't penetrate deep into the muscles like moist heat. Examples of moist heat include a hot water bottle with a damp towel underneath, a hot tub, hot shower, hot bath, etc.
There may be instances where both heat and ice are warranted. If you have a chronic shoulder injury and you want to go swimming, apply moist heat to the area before swimming to help loosen up the muscles and then use ice afterwards to control any swelling.
Grandma's Magic Home Remedy - Epsom Salts!
This is one of the best things you can and should do for your body. And it costs next to nothing. Soak in a hot bath with about 2 handfuls of Epsom salts added to the water. Epsom salts have magnesium in them and this helps draw inflammation out of the muscles, joints, etc. This may be the one exception to the "Always ice when you have a new injury" rule. I often recommend a hot bath with Epsom salts after a long run when the muscles are just aching. I also recommend soaking once a week as a treat to your legs, just to keep them happy!
Epsom salts can also be used more locally. A bucket of water works well to soak a sore plantar fascia, a face cloth soaked in water with Epsom salts can be wrapped around a sore Achilles tendon to decrease swelling. If you use the face cloth method, use a sauce pan with a half handful of Epsom salts, soak the cloth , wring it out, place it over the sore spot, wrap a plastic bag around it to keep in the heat, and then wrap a towel or tensor bandage around everything to hold it in place. It works wonders!
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