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Listener Question: Ice or Heat a Sprained Ankle?

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Listener Question: Ice or Heat a Sprained Ankle?

Jun 06, 2024

You have sprained your ankle. Maybe you twisted it during a run. Maybe you suffered a minor fall while skiing. It hurts and is swollen and needs some relief. Are you supposed to put it on ice or apply heat? Emily Harold, MD, sports medicine physician at University of Utah Health, has the answer, as well as the step-by-step treatment you should use to heal your sprained ankle.

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    Interviewer: This week's listener question is with Dr. Emily Harold. She's a sports medicine expert from University of Utah and the question is: "Ice or heat for a sprained ankle?"

    Treatment for a Sprained Ankle

    Dr. Harold: That's a very good question. I get this question a lot in the clinic. So, typically, ice decreases blood flow to an area, which causes less swelling, whereas heat will bring blood flow to an area which can cause more swelling. Usually, in the first two to three days after an injury, we would recommend ice only. You put the ice on for about 10 to 15 minutes.

    Make sure you put something between the ice and your skin so you don't freeze your skin because you can then get freezer burn. Take the ice pack off and once your skin re-warms, you can re-ice the area. So you could ice it as many times as you want during the day as long as you follow those rules.

    Three Days After Injury

    Once it's been about three days, you can put heat on the injury. Especially for muscle injuries, that tends to help warm up the area and make it a little easier to walk and get around during the day. The heat is also 15 minutes, put the barrier between the hot pad and your skin and let your skin go back to normal temperature before you use heat again.

    Typically, the rule of thumb for us is after three days, you would ice after you do an activity and you would heat prior to doing the activity. That way, you bring the blood flow before the activity and warm up the area. And then after you are done, you put the ice on the decrease on the information that might develop afterward.

    Interviewer: How long is it until we can stop icing or putting heat on it?

    Dr. Harold: Typically, I let pain be the guide. For a lot of people, within a few days, they don't need to ice or heat the injury anymore, although, for some people who have some persistent pain, that will last for a few weeks. And they tend to heat before activity and ice at the end of the day.

    Still in Pain After One to Two Weeks?

    Interviewer: When is it time to go to the doctor if this doesn't stop?

    Dr. Harold: If it's been about one to two weeks and you don't feel there's any difference in your pain, then I think it's time to be evaluated.


    updated: June 6, 2024
    originally published: January 26, 2017