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Ice and Heat: Do You Know When to Use Them?

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LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

“You don’t have to have a physically demanding job in the construction industry to be familiar with sprains and strains,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Just ask anyone who has ever twisted an ankle on their front steps or over-extended an elbow during a weekend softball game. Any of these injuries can lead to weeks of rehab and time away from work.”

Sprains and strains are the source of 35 percent of all time-away-from-work injuries. They are major contributors to rising health care costs.

Although ice and heat therapy are known to speed healing of sprains and strains, Borck points out that many people are confused about when to employ one or the other. “Having a better understanding of these injuries and how they cause pain make it easier to select and apply the appropriate treatment.”

What is a sprain?

A sprain is a stretch or tear of a ligament, the fibrous tissue that connects one bone to another at a joint. Ligaments enable movement. For example, those in the knee link the upper leg with the lower leg which makes it possible to walk and to run.

Sprains are often caused by falls or sudden twists or blows to the body that force a joint to move from its normal position. Sprains are acute injuries, and ankles, knees and wrists are common sites for them to occur.

What is a strain?

A strain is caused by twisting or pulling a muscle or a tendon, the fibrous tissue that connects muscles to bones. Strains can occur when lifting heavy objects such as bricks, grocery bags or small children. Strains can also follow when exercise, playing a sport or simply reaching for something overstresses muscles.

Treat sprains and strains with ice

When someone suffers a sprain or a strain, blood flows to the site of the injury. This can cause bruising, swelling and inflammation. Ice is effective in treating these injuries as the cold causes blood vessels to constrict, which reduces blood flow. When applying ice, think “P.R.I.C.E.”: protecting, resting, icing, compressing and elevating the injured area as soon as possible.

Ice sprains and strains by:

  • Wrapping ice in a thin towel or plastic bag and placing it on the affected area for ten minutes at a time. (You can also use a bag of frozen peas.) The sooner you begin ice treatment, the better.
  • Allowing the skin temperature to return to normal before icing a second or third time.
  • Icing the injury several times a day for up to three days.

When to use heat

Heat therapy can be effective when pain caused by stiff muscles is lingering or, as in the case of arthritis, chronic. That is because heat therapy increases blood flow, and increased blood helps stiff muscles relax.

Use heat by:

  • Placing several dry towels between the injured area and the heating source (helps protect against burns)
  • Wrapping the injured area in a hot, moist towel or heating pack
  • Applying heat for no longer than 20 minutes at a time
  • Never sleeping while using the heat source

Most sprains and strains can be treated at the worksite and at home. However, if in 48 hours they have not improved or have gotten worse, contact your health care provider as you may have a more serious condition.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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