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Heat or Ice?

What's the best remedy to relieve your pain

Heat or Ice for Your Injury?

Aches and pains. Sooner or later everyone has them — and when you do, you want them gone.

Often, applying heat or cold will help. But which is the right choice?

"Typically, if you have an injury that comes on suddenly, use ice in the first 48 hours to try to reduce swelling," says Jessica Diethelm, MD, an internist at Rush University Medical Center. "Then, it's whichever feels better for that particular issue."

Here, Diethelm offers advice on how to handle three common pain-producing scenarios:

1. You step off the curb and sprain your ankle. 

An ice pack wrapped in a towel can reduce swelling and fluid accumulation when soft tissues are injured.

"Never apply ice directly to your skin," Diethelm cautions. "It can cause frostbite."

Related: Learn how to RICE (rest, ice, compress, elevate) to help you heal from minor injuries.

2. You regularly awaken with neck pain and stiffness.

Persistent pain should be evaluated by your doctor.

If caused by arthritis, a warm shower or heating pad applied for 10- to 15-minute periods may stimulate blood flow and relax muscles surrounding your joints.

Ice can reduce inflammation and ease discomfort too. But on areas that lack much fat — your elbow, for example — application times around 10 minutes are best because longer periods may be more irritating than helpful, Diethelm says.

Related: Do you have lingering neck pain from an accident? It might be whiplash. Get the facts on this common and painful condition.

3. After a day spent moving heavy furniture, you have nagging back pain.

Provided you don’t have severe pain, leg weakness, loss of bowel or bladder control, or numbness and tingling in the legs — signs of a potentially serious problem that you should bring to your doctor’s attention immediately — you can usually treat back pain at home, Diethelm says.

Ten-minute periods of icing for the first 48 hours may numb the area, lessening pain — and that's likely to be the priority when you’re hurting. If your discomfort is muscle-related and persists after two days, heat may help.

Back pain can be a symptom of many different causes, including overuse or improper use, strenuous activity, joint problems, smoking and obesity. Here are some tips for addressing and treating it.

Exercise is essential to good health. But if you don't use common sense while working out, you're putting yourself at risk for injury.

Kathy Weber, MD, MS, a sports medicine physician at Rush, is all for having fun while burning calories. But she cautions that forgetting yourself too thoroughly can lead to injuries.