Sports injuries: Is cooling or warming better?

Whether it’s your ankle or your knee – if you do sport, you are at risk of injury. For acute pain, cooling is the best first aid measure. Warming the injury is counterproductive.

Everyone’s familiar with the scenes from TV: A footballer is fouled, falls and injures his foot. The medics run onto the pitch, the doctor grabs an ice spray– and shortly afterwards the player is back on his feet again. Is it magic? Not at all. The player is not suddenly back in the best of health. In the best-case scenario, he is simply able to hang on until the final whistle. And in the ideal case, he will be back at the top of his game again more quickly thanks to the spray. “Ice and compression are the most important things to remember with acute injuries,” says Dr Mathias Frey, Team Doctor to the professional footballers at 1. FC Heidenheim.

Cooling the injury relieves pain

Ice sprays or compresses slow down all the processes in the body. If you ice your ankle after an impact, the blood vessels in the area constrict and the blood flows more slowly. In the best-case scenario, this could avoid minor internal bleeding. Generally speaking, the body sends fluid containing substances to repair the injured tissue. That also takes place more slowly, which means that the knee does not swell so much. Messenger substances that spread inflammations also travel much more slowly. In the long run, cooling the injury helps it to heal more quickly. One pleasant side effect is that you feel less pain because the nerves are also no longer running in overdrive.

However, it doesn’t have to be an ice spray like the ones that team doctors use. Ice packs from the freezer, ice cubes in a bag or holding the injury under a cold tap can all help. Please remember to put something between the skin and the compress in order to avoid frostbite. In addition to cooling the injury, it helps to keep the foot elevated “above heart height”, advises Dr Frey.

Heat only helps with chronic injuries

Sports doctors also sometimes use heat packs in addition to ice. However, applying heat is counterproductive for acute injuries. “Heat is better for chronic injuries, primarily when they affect the back,” Dr Frey says. Wherever muscles are shorter, heat can help them lengthen out again. The same applies here: Don’t apply heat packs directly to the skin. It’s better to wrap them in a cloth in order to avoid burns.