Sprains and strains are common for those of us who have physically demanding jobs or participate in sports or outdoor activities. However, anyone can suffer from a back strain, sprained ankle or other joint or muscle injury, whether it’s caused by a stumble on an uneven path or when lifting weights in the gym. While more serious injuries like torn hamstrings will require medical attention, minor sprains and strains will heal on their own without a doctor’s visit given some time. But it’s important to look after these injuries to reduce pain, promote recovery and prevent more serious injury.

You may be wondering, what is the difference between a sprain and a strain? According to the NHS, a sprain refers to a torn or twisted ligament – the tissue which connects our joints – and is most common in wrists, knees, thumbs and ankles. Meanwhile, a strain is an overstretched or torn muscle, commonly known as a pulled muscle. This is common in legs, knees, feet, the back and shoulders.

Treating sprains and strains: RICE therapy

The RICE method is highly recommended for treating your sprains and strains at home. It’s cheap and easy – all you need is something cold and a barrier between it and your skin. RICE is recommended for the first 2-3 days following an injury, and stands for:
  • Rest – avoid exercise and other physical activities which would aggravate the injury
  • Ice – apply ice, with an appropriate barrier, to the injury for up to 20 minutes every 2-3 hours
  • Compression – apply compression with a bandage, compression cuff or joint support
  • Elevation – keep it raised up as much as possible
First we’ll look at how to use ice as part of RICE treatment, then we’ll look at the uses for heat therapy.

How do ice packs help treat sprains and strains during the acute stages of injury?

While you could enlist a bag of frozen vegetables to treat your injury, it’s much more convenient to use an ice pack. Either way, cold therapy works by reducing swelling and inhibiting the ability of nerve endings to work, numbing the pain. Our HypaGel Gel Packs are ideal for repeated home use, as they can be cooled in the freezer until use. They can also be stored in freezers at gyms and sports clubs for treatment immediately following the injury. They can be used for hot therapy too, if immersed in hot water and placed in the microwave.

However, not all injuries take place within easy reach of a freezer. That’s why our HypaCool Instant Cold Packs are an ideal addition to a sports first aid kit. Thanks to an endothermic chemical reaction, these packs can provide rapid cold treatment wherever you are, whether you’re on a sports field, up a mountain or in a desert! No pre-cooling is required as you simply squeeze the pack to burst a pouch inside, which triggers the reaction. This enables you to start treatment long before you can reach home.

Whatever you use to apply cold treatment, you should always place a barrier between it and your skin. This prevents frostbite. We have a range of therapy pack sleeves and covers for our ice packs. The cover has the advantage of including a strap which you can use to secure the pack in place, making your treatment hands-free. Better yet, our compression cuff combines the compression of a bandage with space for an ice pack – enabling you to combine cold therapy with compression for convenient RICE treatment. 

How do I use ice packs?

For your reusable HypaGel Therapy Pack, all you need to do is put it in the freezer (or the fridge if you prefer it not to be as cold) for at least 30 minutes, though you can leave it in as long as you like. To use it hot (we’ll come onto the uses of hot therapy later), you can immerse the pack in hot water up to 80C (i.e. not boiling!) for 10 minutes – ensure the water is removed from the heat source and not sitting on an active hob, for example. Alternatively, place the pack in a microwaveable bowl, cover in water and microwave it for 1 minute or 75 seconds from frozen. Leave the pack to stand for an equivalent time before applying to your body. Never apply a hot or cold pack directly to your skin as this may cause burns or frostbite.

To use a HypaCool Instant Cold Pack, simply locate the inner pouch and squeeze firmly to rupture it, triggering the reaction. Give it a quick shake to mix the contents and apply to the injured area. Use a therapy cover or other barrier to protect your skin. After use, simply dispose of the pack in household waste. You should not tear or puncture the pack, and if it becomes ruptured, avoid contact with the contents and dispose of the pack. Children should not use HypaCool Instant Cold Packs or HypaGel Therapy Packs without adult supervision.

Heat treatment for long term injury and muscle soreness

While ice packs are ideal for the acute stages of injury, after the first few days switching to heat can help. Heat therapy is also helpful for chronic injuries and delayed-onset muscle soreness. Applying heat to your body stimulates blood circulation, relaxes muscles and relieves aches. However, you shouldn’t use it on a recent injury, as you’ll make the swelling worse.

Want to learn more about first aid for common injuries and conditions? Browse the rest of our blog for lots of informative articles!

Shop for hot & cold packs:

HypaCool Instant Cold Pack, Compact
HypaCool Instant Cold Pack, Standard
HypaCool Instant Cold Pack, Pro
HypaGel Reusable Hot/Cold Pack
Compression Cuff
Therapy Covers
Crepe Bandage

Not sure how to use a cold pack? Watch our video below:


About the author:

Dennis Outram is a senior first aid trainer and a Serving Brother in the Order of St John.
Find out more about Dennis.