Foot and Ankle Injuries: Ice It or Heat It?


Both heat and ice are viable options when it comes to treating an injury, but knowing which one is appropriate for what type of injury is important. Below are some guidelines to help patients determine if ice or heat is best to treat a foot or ankle injury.

Ice Treatments

When it comes to an injury that causes swelling or is acute (this means the injury is recent or the pain or inflammation is intense), ice is usually the best treatment. It reduces swelling, inflammation, and pain.

Swelling and inflammation are vital parts of the healing process. However, if left untreated, swelling can cause further damage. For an injury that has occurred within the past 48 hours that has inflammation, icing is therefore important to aid healing.

There are a variety of different ice packs, including gel packs that can be bought at a drugstore. However, bags of ice or frozen vegetables can be just as effective. To apply an ice pack properly, follow the guidelines below.

  • Never place the ice pack directly on the skin. This can cause frostbite or other skin damage. Make sure there is a barrier such as a thin towel between the pack and the skin.
  • Never ice for longer than 15 to 20 minutes. Again, this can cause damage to the skin. It’s possible to ice more than once a day, but limit those times to 15 to 20 minutes each.
  • Remove the ice pack if it causes a tingling sensation or turns the skin bright red.

Heat Treatments

These treatments are often used for chronic conditions (injuries that are persistent or have been around for a long time). The heat promotes blood flow to the affected area and loosens stiff joints or tight muscles.

Using heat treatments effectively and safely is important to reduce burns and to ensure that joints or muscles are properly loosened to reduce pain. Items that can be used to apply heat include a towel that has been placed in the dryer, a heating pad (preferably with various heat settings), or bags that are filled with rice, wheat, or other ingredients that are heated in the microwave (be careful these don’t catch fire!).

Knowing whether to use heat or ice for foot and ankle injuries will depend on whether the pain comes from an acute injury or a chronic one. Talking to a podiatrist such as Sheldon Nadal, D.P.M., can help determine which treatment is best.