Even as temperatures drop, it is important to apply ice to all strains, sprains, bruises and similar injuries sustained on the football field.
Heat may feel better in the short term, but cold closes blood vessels, thus restricting blood flow and swelling to begin healing, St. Vincent Sports Medicine performance specialist Jamey Gordon said.
“If the injury is less than 72 hours old, ice it – no matter what,” Gordon said. “It doesn’t matter if it is 80 degrees or 8 below, anything that happens on the field should be iced. That’s why athletic trainers don’t carry heat packs with them, just ice packs.”
Gordon said ice creates vasoconstriction in the blood vessels, penetrating the muscle to get at the deepest part of the injury. Heat only travels a half-inch or so past the skin, missing the areas that cause pain and discomfort.
“Heat makes the skin hotter and opens blood vessels,” Gordon said. “The body reacts by opening the blood vessel in the muscle as well, and that’s what leads to swelling. Even after the game, a cold whirlpool does more good than a hot Jacuzzi. A few days later, if you need heat to loosen up, that’s OK. By then, the injury is starting to heal.”
In sub-freezing temperatures, make sure to place a towel between the ice and skin to negate contact injuries from the added cold, Gordon said. Ice should never be applied for more than 30 minutes at a time.
Applying ice early and slowing blood flow to the affected area is the key to returning to play, said Dave Csillan, a Ewing (N.J.) High School athletic trainer and member of USA Football’s Football and Wellness Committee.
“Eighty percent of all players who suffer minor trauma injuries can return to activity quicker if the swelling is controlled within the first 24 hours,” Csillan said. “In joint-related injuries, swelling increases pain and decreases the range of motion of the joint. Until an athlete sees a lessening of pain and better movement, he or she should not return to play.”