Q: Is ice always the best way to treat an injury?

A: When you’re inflicted with an injury and cannot decide whether to apply cold or heat to the injury, cold is usually the better, quicker option. However, heat and cold heal injuries in two different ways.

Cold is good for an injury or inflammation where tissues are damaged. It helps relieve pain by numbing the affected area and reduces swelling, inflammation and bleeding. Cold is good for a new injury, especially in the first 24-48 hours when swelling is the most intense. Remember these five words when dealing with a sports injury: protect, rest, ice, compress and elevate. Keeping ice on an injury for too long — more than 20 minutes — can cause tissue damage and injure areas of poor circulation.

Applying heat to an injury brings more blood to the area where it is applied and reduces join stiffness and muscle spasm, which makes it useful when muscles are tight. It also reduces inflammation and is good for sore or achy muscles from an intense workout or movement. Heat relaxes muscles and allows blood vessels to expand and deliver more oxygen and nutrients to an injured area. If the injury includes open wounds or cuts, avoid heat because it promotes more bleeding.

Dr. Appathurai Balamurugan is chief resident in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine in the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Email your health questions to housecall@uams.edu.