You've just sprained your ankle in a basketball game. What should you do – apply ice or heat? Many people find that difficult to answer. Knowing whether to ice or heat can save you pain and time when it comes to injuries.

Let's begin by identifying the two types of pain, namely, acute and chronic. Acute pain occurs suddenly and is short-lived. Common signs and symptoms include tenderness, redness, skin that is warm to the touch and swelling. This is often due to a fall, sprain or collision and the cause of the pain is quite obvious. In contrast, chronic pain develops slowly but lasts for a long time. It may come and go. Often the culprit is overuse but chronic pain may also develop when an acute injury is not treated properly.

For acute injuries, ice is the best treatment since it reduces swelling and pain. This is because ice is a vaso-constrictor (meaning it narrows blood vessels) and it minimizes internal bleeding. So apply ice (wrapped in a thin towel) to the affected area for 10 to 15 minutes. Allow the skin temperature to return to normal before doing this for the second or third third time. This can be done several times a day for up to three days.

Heat is normally used for chronic pain or injuries without inflammation or swelling. Use it to tie sore, stiff muscles or joint pain. Athletes with chronic pain are advised to use heat therapy before exercise to increase the elasticity of joint tissues and to stimulate blood flow. Heat can also be used to help relax tight muscles or muscle spasms. But do not do this after exercise.

Since heat increases circulation and increases skin temperature, do not use it for acute injuries or injuries that show signs of inflammation. Apply heat to an injury 15 to 20 minutes at a time and be sure there are enough layers between your skin and the heating source to prevent burns. Moist heat is best so have a hot wet towel ready if you're going to be participating in an activity where you know you'll need it.