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Applying Ice & Heat to Hamstring Injury

by Patty Weasler, RN October 06, 2020 0 Comments

When dealing with a pulled hamstring, ice or heat therapy can make the difference for your recovery. The two treatments work very differently, yet complement each other perfectly. If you’ve injured your hamstring keep reading to learn more about how to correctly use ice and heat to get you back to enjoying all the activities you love. 

When to Ice or Heat

With any muscle strain, there is something to gain with heat and cold therapy. However, there is a right and wrong way to do it.

When to Use Ice:

  • Immediately after the injury
  • To reduce swelling
  • To minimize bruising
  • If you are in pain
  • To decrease muscle spasms
  • After physical activity

Don’t use ice if you have any skin injuries, peripheral neuropathy, or other conditions that prevent you from feeling the effects of cold. Avoid putting the ice directly onto your skin to prevent skin injury 

When to Use Heat:

  • After the initial injury phase has passed
  • To loosen tight muscles
  • To relieve soreness several days after a strenuous activity
  • Before physical activity

Avoid using heat if you have a skin infection, swelling, or have a condition where it makes it difficult for you to feel temperature.

Check out this in-depth resource to learn more about how to treat a pulled hamstring.

Ice for a Hamstring Injury

When you’ve suffered a hamstring strain the pain and swelling can interfere with physical activity and make you just want to lay around all day. But instead of trying to take the wait and see approach grab a cold pack or an ice pack for your hamstring muscles.

Ice works by causing the blood vessels beneath the skin to vasoconstrict, or tighten. This vasoconstriction reduces the blood flow in the area, which in turn, reduces swelling. The cold also interrupts the pain signal to the brain, so you’ll experience less pain. The last way ice affects your body is by decreasing your metabolic demand. This means that the cells that are cooled down will need less oxygen and nutrients to survive.

Benefits of Icing

Icing your hamstring is one of the gold standard treatments after suffering an injury or muscle strain. Its benefits all support your ability to heal faster and reduce the amount of tissue injury. Here are the three benefits of icing:

  • Less pain
  • Less swelling
  • Less inflammation

These three benefits will have a cascade effect on your hamstring. Less pain will allow you to move more and keep your range of motion. Less swelling will decrease pain and keep stiffness at bay. Lastly, less inflammation will reduce pain and overall swelling.

Tips for Applying Ice

Putting ice on the back of the thigh for your hamstring muscle injuries can be a little tricky, but it doesn’t have to be. Grab an ice pack or even a frozen bag of vegetables, place a light towel on the back of your thigh, and rest the ice. If you will be moving around, look for an ice pack with an elastic strap to secure it. Here are our best tips for applying ice:

  • Ice it Fast

    Get the ice on your injury quickly, it’s most effective when it’s done within 48 hours after the injury. 

  • Massage It

    Don’t just set the ice pack on the back of your thigh, move it around and massage the cold into the skin. 

  • Set Your Timer

    Ice the injured hamstring for 20 minutes, but no longer. Icing it for too long can cause skin and tissue damage like frostbite. 

Heat for Hamstrings

If you have had a pulled hamstring or another hamstring injury using heat after the initial injury phase has passed can help get you on the path to healing a bit quicker. Heat works by causing vasodilation, or the widening of blood vessels. This increase in blood vessel size increases blood flow to the muscles and surrounding tissues which brings more of the necessary oxygen and nutrients.   

Benefits of Heat Therapy

Heat therapy can benefit almost any hamstring injury but is especially helpful for overuse injuries that linger for a long time. You’ll get more out of it if you stretch after using heat, when your muscles are nice and pliable. Here are the three benefits of heat therapy:

  • Loosens muscle tissue
  • Relieves pain
  • Speeds up healing

Here’s how to properly stretch after your hamstring injury.

Tips for Applying Heat

To apply heat therapy, use a heating pad or hot pack and place it against the injured area. Put a towel between the heat source and your thigh and secure it with an elastic bandage if necessary. Here are our best tips for apply heat:

  • Wait 72 hours

    Don’t put heat on your injury right away. Wait at least 72 hours after you’ve had a hamstring injury. Heat can increase swelling and bruising, which is exactly what you don’t want to do.

  • Heat Before Exercise

    Use heat before you exercise to warm up muscles. It’ll help prep your body for movement and prevent re-injury.

  • Set Your Timer

    Heat therapy should be used for 15 to 20 minutes. Never sleep with a hot pack, it can cause skin burns.

    Here is where you can find just about every hot and cold therapy product you need to manage your hamstring pain.

Alternating Hot and Cold Therapy

Hot and cold therapy both have some obvious benefits to a hamstring strain and it turns out you can use them together. To perform alternating hot and cold therapy grab both an ice pack and heating pad. You’ll want to keep your eye on the time so have a stopwatch or timer ready as well. The ratio of cold to heat is 1 minute of cold to 3 minutes of heat. Just be sure you end with cold therapy.

See our in-depth guide on alternating hot and cold therapy for more.

The Safe Way to Use Ice and Heat for a Hamstring Injury

A hamstring injury can cause pain and swelling that interferes with your daily activities. One way to treat your injury in the comfort of your own home is with ice and heat. The cold will numb away pain and reduce swelling, while heat soothes your sore muscle. Not every hamstring injury can be treated with ice and heat so make sure to talk to your doctor before you begin.


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Patty Weasler, RN
Patty Weasler, RN

Patty Weasler is a freelance health writer and nurse. She is certified in critical care nursing and has been practicing for over 10 years. Patty lives in Milwaukee, WI with her husband and three children. She enjoys spending her time with family and educating people about their health.

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