After suffering from any injury, inflammation (which causes swelling) immediately goes to the damaged area to start the repair process. Whilst this swelling is important in tissue healing it is often excessive and cause increased pain and decreased function. Therefore, for the first 24-72 hours after an injury it is important to try and limit the amount of inflammation by the R.I.C.E. protocol – Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. All these steps slow blood flow to the area and therefore decrease swelling. By applying heat or massage to the area in the first 24-72 hours can increase blood flow and cause more inflammation! Ice should be applied for 20 minutes at a time with a cloth between the ice and your skin and repeat every 2 hours.
Heat is useful in relaxing tight muscles, particularly around the neck and lower back. Many people often feel better after a hot shower in the morning as the heat helps to release tight muscles and trigger points. Using heat in these areas helps soothes muscle pain and tension. Massage works very similar to heat so if you can get to a massage therapist or physiotherapist you will get even better relief. Heat should be applied for 25-30 minutes via a heat pack or hot water bottle.
If you experience pain or swelling from an old injury after exercising ice is still the better option in this situation even though you don’t have a new injury. This is because swelling or pain after exercise often indicates inflammation and aggravation of the tissues.