Cold or Heat Therapy? Which Is Better For a Jiu-Jitsu Injury

8 min read
Learn how to best treat your Jiu-Jitsu injury with cold and heat therapy with 9 helpful tips

Man injured from Jiu-Jitsu and thinking about hot or cold treatment

Cold or Heat Therapy? Which Is Better For a Jiu-Jitsu Injury

Learn how to best treat your Jiu-Jitsu injury with cold and heat therapy with 9 helpful tips

Location: Kennedy Space Center, FL

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Photo by: Anett Meszaros

The choice between ice and heat treatment methods for pain and Jiu-Jitsu injuries has long been debated and is still controversial today, but should it be? Both recovery methods offer benefits for your injury, and you might often leave it up to what sensation you enjoy most. Such as warm and cozy or chilling and numbing. 

Utilizing either ice or heat treatment will be better than doing nothing at all, especially right after you sustain the injury… this can be a swollen ankle, knee, recurring inflammation, or soreness from a hard day’s training. The key is to implement your ice or cold treatment within that immediate post-stress window, where your goal should be to reduce the onset of inflammation, pain, bruising, and other fun symptoms we often know all too well. 

Utilizing ice or heat or even alternating between the two right after sustaining the injury can prevent it from exacerbating and will often speed up your recovery to get you back on the mats and training sooner. Below we’ll show you the most effective combo of the two, what works best based on your goals, and some helpful tips.

Looking specifically at heat treatment, heat effectively treats pain via increases in blood flow, metabolism, and elasticity of connective tissues. It can also help reduce joint stiffness, enabling you to implement needed rehab for your injury. We should note that there is limited evidence to support this about injury versus soreness. However, we often hear that heat helps with reductions in pain and disability in the short term, with most acute lower-back pain and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) more effectively than cold treatments.

Heat or ice for injuries? What to use

If ice is your go-to post-injury treatment for pain and to reduce stiffness, 20 minutes of application is a lovely balance.

“There are no real guidelines other than 30 minutes maximum when using ice, based on research,” physical therapist and personal trainer Leada Malek, PT, DPT, CSCS, SCS, tells us.

Stopping just before that 30 min. time limit, especially when using cold therapy, protects your skin and lowers the risk of irritation which is why we recommend 20 min on 20 mins off.

According to the evidence, heat and ice are pretty close when it comes to pain and healing at a faster rate. That said, the order in which you use them does make a difference and should be a set go to practice for you anytime you get a Jiu-Jitsu injury. Now let’s dive into how to treat your injuries efficiently and avoid damaging your injured area any further. 

Photo by: Duncan Graham

Choose cold therapy first

Cold therapy is the king for treating an injury immediately after it happens, as it most efficiently targets and reduces swelling over heat treatment and eases pain best by numbing the area. Some may find it uncomfortable at first and if so, ease into it by wrapping the icepack in a towel.

“Heat therapy is a great form of treatment for muscular injuries; however, it is important to note that it shouldn’t be used immediately after an acute injury, such as a strained hamstring, broken bone, dislocated shoulder, or any other sudden injury associated with trauma,” Ryan Daly, a sports performance coach for professional athletes tells us. 

Acute injuries cause bleeding (a.k.a. swelling), and heat therapy immediately following the injury will only worsen this, as it will heat up the blood and make it flow faster, thus causing more bleeding/swelling, which can be pretty painful. 

“You don’t want too much swelling immediately after an injury, as it will slow the healing process,” Daly explains. “Instead, follow the ‘RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation’ protocol to best reduce swelling.”

Your goal should be to reduce swelling when you first get injured on the mats to accelerate recovery time and prevent further pain. One of the most effective forms of cold-water therapy is an ice bath. The Ice barrel or Plunge are great options for this treatment, or just a simple bath at your home will do too. 

Cold Therapy Goals

A good goal is to do cold therapy for at least the first three days to a week maximum following your injury to best reduce swelling and ultimatly heal quicker.

“If you are using just ice as cold therapy, it is recommended that you repeat the process, with 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off, for the first few days,” Daly tells us. “If you’re doing cold water therapy, such as a dip in a Cold Plunge, I recommend doing up to 10 minutes — if you can make it that long — with the first three days focusing on only cold therapy, rest, compression, and elevation, to reduce the swelling most efficiently.”

Longer is not always better when it comes to cold therapy. While ice may help reduce swelling, it can also interrupt the inflammatory process if done excessively, Malek cautions. So, always measure your time spent performing cold therapy, don’t exceed 20-30 minutes at the top end, and stop the therapy after a few days have passed to avoid hindering recovery, which is your ultimate goal and the reason you’re doing cold therapy in the first place. 

When to use heat therapy?

After 72 hours is when heat therapy is best utilized. If it’s a minor injury such as a strain from training Judo one evening (ie. not a tear or broken bone), then start your heat therapy treatment to reduce pain and get the blood flowing in the muscles….. after 72 hours.

“Be sure to check the skin and take precautions by adding layers between the heat and skin, especially if sensation is impacted,” Malek suggests.

Adding these layers between the heat and skin helps to ensure that the affected areas and surrounding soft tissues remain safe and secure. Generally, after three days, apply heat treatment to reduce pain, help loosen muscles, and increase blood flow. But again, don’t apply heat for more than 20 minutes at a time to avoid developing a skin rash or getting burned, Daly warns us.

After 72 hours have elapsed and you’ve used heat to address your pain and improve muscle mobility, we recommend you increase light stretching and foam rolling as two additional recovery procedures to keep you mobile and get you back on the mats sooner.

“I recommend getting a heating pad and applying it to the injured muscles for about 15-20 minutes before foam rolling, then following it up with some light stretching,” Malek details.

Additionally, don’t excessively heat a freshly pulled muscle because of the influx of inflammation to said area, and definitely avoid any open wounds; not a good combination. When looking at a mild strain that mainly feels somewhat tight or painful, heat is often a good option for pain relief, but you might be able to just walk if as well. 

Photo by: Duncan Graham

Heat and ice therapy for Jiu-Jitsu… The verdict

A general rule you can always go off of for your injury routine is to continue to treat an injury for three to five days following its onset.

“If you can act on it by adding compression, protecting it, and moving the injury as early as you can, you capitalize on the healing process,” Malek explains. “Once you feel less swelling and are ready to get it moving, using heat for up to 10 minutes can help get things looser and prepared for movement and rehab.”

Your goal is to get moving again in a reasonably tolerable fashion, not reinjure the affected joint or area, and be primed for rehab exercise.

Cold or heat therapy safety tips

After applying heat or ice, always check your skin to ensure that there’s no irritation or adverse reactions, and if there is, stop ASAP. However, we’re dealing with just heat and ice here, so the chances of you having irritation or adverse reactions is ridiculously low.

Remember to utilize compression with your recovery and gentle movement for best results. And while ice is beneficial to you getting back on the mats sooners, just remember to only ice for about 20 mins. at a time throughout the early stages of healing. 

Cold and heat therapy isn’t necessary all the time 

Not every minor injury needs the full ice and heat routine to put things in perspective. Sometimes you won’t need either therapy. Instead, you may want to implement a good recovery routine such as foam rolling, dynamic stretching, etc., to warm up your muscles before BJJ training to increase blood flow’ muscular temperature, and thus muscular flexibility making you less prone to injuries in the first place and relieving the muscle stiffness we often feel… especially with the 6:00 am BJJ classes.

“Take note that not all pain and muscle stiffness sources signify injury requiring cold therapy or ice, and a simple routine consisting of stretching and foam rolling — as well as recovery fuel, hydration, and sleep — should be enough,” explains Daly. 

You can and probably should certainly still use heat and cold therapy as part of prevention. For example, take a dive into the Ice Barrel after rolling if you are in any pain — regardless of whether you have an actual “injury” and certainly if you notice swelling so you can wake up the next day ready to grapple again. 

And that’s not even considering the immune system boost and menial edge you get from ice baths or cold showers. It’s all good for you; they just suck to do, that’s it.

One last word of wisdom is to never use cold therapy before activity. While heat therapy can and often should be used before rolling (along with foam rolling and stretching), cold therapy can lead to further damage and new injuries that can keep you out for months. Remember, muscles are designed to be warmed up before exercising, and cold therapy does the opposite of that. So, simply implement some dynamic stretching for a few minutes before rolling and save the cold therapy for after.

Recap: Heat and cold therapy

  • Both are great options to add to your recovery routine
  • Heat effectively treats pain via increases in blood flow, metabolism, and elasticity of connective tissues.
  • Use cold therapy first to reduce swelling
  • After 72 hours, start using heat 
  • For both heat and cold, keep application to 20-30 mins; no more  
  • Don’t excessively heat a freshly pulled muscle because of the influx of inflammation to said area
  • Never use cold therapy before rolling.
  • Not every minor injury needs the full ice and heat routine
  • Stretch and foam roll before every BJJ class to help avoid injuries altogether 

Now, heal up, get out there and start training again! Life is better with Jiu-Jitsu.




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