How to Apply Heat or Cold to Injured Ankle

How to Apply Heat or Cold to Injured Ankle

A sprained ankle can throw a wrench into your daily life. If you’ve ever suffered from an ankle injury, you know exactly what we mean! Not only does it affect comfort and mobility for the time being, but it also affects quality of life - ultimately making us feel sluggish and slow if we don’t take care of it. Luckily, we want everyone to know that two effective treatments are as simple as ice or heat.

But here’s the question, which should you choose? Ice or heat? To start with, keep reading, because we want to let everyone know how to use either ice or heat to help their sprain recover faster, so they can regain their quality of life sooner than expected.

When and How to Use Cold Therapy

Cold is a quick and easy way to manage pain and swelling. If you're unsure of the severity of your injury, it's always best to go see a doctor first! Otherwise, ice can be an immediate step in preventing unnecessary swelling and promoting faster healing in the long run. It's also great for quickly relieving pain if one chooses to exercise.

How to Properly Apply Cold

Cold is being used as treatment for injuries and inflammation that can be caused by playing sports, falling down, bumping your shin into something, or any other physical trauma one could experience. Ice helps treat swelling and pain. It's actually effective in numbing the area around an injury. Here are some general rules for ice application:

  • To achieve therapeutic numbness, only use a thin layer between your skin and the ice. A t-shirt or pillowcase works well, but NOT a towel.
  • Up to 20 minutes of icing is best for boosting the healing process of damaged tissue, but too much can actually make it more difficult for your body to repair itself!
  • It usually takes about 10-15 minutes to achieve “numb” status (less with ice massage).
  • Once the area is numb, you can stop icing.

Benefits of Cold Therapy

It's a good idea to apply Cold therapy pack to the affected area as soon as possible. The cold constricts your blood vessels and pushes fluid out of the area so new fluid cannot return. Ice also numbs the feeling. When you had ankle injuries, it is a good thing to keep them from being inflamed again!

Since each person has different issues, how much time should you spend on this treatment? For most people, applying cold for 10 to 15 minutes at a time is sufficient after an injury occurs. However, icing longer or between injuries helps improve protection against inflammation. If you don't have any injury, but still want to do it for prevention, simply use ice for about 20 minutes every day until pain disappears.

Best Ways to Apply Cold Therapy

Cold Pack or Ankle Ice Wrap

Simply remove the wrap from the freezer and place it where you need it. Compression is a great way to help manage additional pain and swelling when administering a wrap for treatment.

Topical Gel

It provides a soothing and cooling sensation on the skin, specifically for temporary pain management.

Ice Massage

Ice is applied directly to the injured area for 5-10 minutes, or until moderate pain or discomfort arises.

Ice Therapy Machine

This machine compresses cool water through a specially designed hose for ankle joints. This is done by compression to further relieve swelling from the injury.

Ice Bath

Placing the foot and ankle in a bucket or tub of freezing cold water can address large areas all at once.

When and How to Use Heat Therapy

Heat is a more agreeable treatment option for any injury when possible. It can be used throughout the recovery process, but the only time it is not recommended would be when excessive swelling is present or within the first few hours to days of an injury (depending on severity). It can be used before and after exercise and treatment to help with pain, stiffness, and stress management.

Benefits of Heat Therapy

Many people like the heat. It helps warm and relax their muscles, saving them a step when it comes time to sink back into bed after a long day's work or play. Additionally, warmth can quicken your healing process by increasing blood flow throughout your body. It also allows you to get more done in less time, since rigidity is diminished, which will cause you to feel less stiff and more relaxed the following day. Be sure not to overwarm yourself, though; otherwise, you might fall asleep too early for your ankles to enjoy being massaged or put through range-of-motion exercises.

Dry vs Moist Heat

If you have lived or traveled in places with high humidity, or even stayed indoors for extended periods during the summer, for example, then you're probably familiar with how this can give off a strong feeling of being hot in certain areas. Studies show that heated water vapors tend to penetrate our skin more deeply than dry heat, and this can be noted particularly on certain points on the body throughout the day. In the case of getting therapy from a professional, like a physical therapist or chiropractor, for example, it's a good idea to see if they have something called moist heat, and ask them about using it, just to see how effective it is at maximizing your benefits.

Best Ways to Apply Heat Therapy

Gel Packs

This can be achieved with hot water or a microwave, depending on your circumstances.

Herbal Heating Pads

Simply apply a herbal heating pad and set it at the level of warmth you want.  Be sure to remove it off when you are done.

Hot Water Bottle

Fill the bottle with water at the desired temperature, and enjoy.


Draw yourself an Epsom salt bath and relax your entire body. Or simply fill a bucket with warm water for specifically soaking your foot in!

Why Swelling Happens

Swelling is often demonized in association with a new injury, as it has become so closely associated with severe pain. However, swelling is actually a normal, even necessary part of the healing process. It allows more beneficial cells to get into the injured area and start repairing cells damaged by the incident. However, anyone who has ever suffered from swelling knows that it can be uncomfortable. Ice should always be used during this time to alleviate some of that discomfort.

Alternating Cold and Hot Therapy

Alternating between heat and cold therapy pack on an injury is one of the best things to do for yourself to optimize the healing process. This is because it increases the frequency of blood circulation in the tissue around the injured area, and therefore speeds up recovery time. To be properly effective, it's generally recommended that you alternate your treatment options regarding ice, followed by heat or vice versa. If you have a newer injury or just want to get rid of all the swelling, applying cold is one great way to go! Otherwise, if you find relief in warmth at the end of a long day, use this method - just make sure that's what works best for you, and remember to always listen to your body!

Safe Application of Cold and Hot Therapy

Both cold and heat therapy treatments require close attention to skin health throughout their treatment time, as there is a risk of frostbite or burns if sensation is compromised. Cold therapy, for example, should not be induced for longer than 30 minutes without being followed by a period of warming up, which can last approximately 15 minutes. This helps ensure that reactions caused by blood-flow restriction (which may cause frostbite) do not get an opportunity to fully develop.

  • After either treatment option, don’t force any movements or exercise due to altered sensation.
  • Avoid using heat if you have MS to prevent relapses.
  • Avoid using ice or heat if you have diabetes, vascular disease, or decreased feeling in the ankle.
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