Ice vs. Heat: Which is best?
Ice or Heat? How do you know which one to use
Muscle pain, joint pain and injuries can really stop you in your tracks. When you are injured or in pain, getting relief fast is extremely important. Both ice and heat can play a role in your relief, when used at the right times.
Unfortunately both can also make your pain worse if used incorrectly, so it’s important to know which to use when, and how best to apply them. Generally ice is best for a new injury and heat is better for general pain or long term injuries.
How does ice help?
When you apply ice to an area it:
- reduces the blood flow to the area
- reduces inflammation/swelling
- causes generalised numbness in the area
It is important to remember swelling and inflammation are part of your body’s normal response to an injury, and the increased blood flow to the area is part of the normal healing process. This is why reducing the blood flow can actually be harmful in some instances.
How does heat help?
When you apply heat to an area it causes:
- increased blood flow
- relaxation of tight muscles
- improved movement
Remember, when you increase blood flow you can increase swelling in the region which can cause an increased level of pain in the area later.
How to apply ice
Generally apply ice for about 5-10 minutes then remove for 15 – 20 minutes. Stop icing the area when the area is numb and reapply once the area has warmed up again. As a general rule, when it’s numb you’re done.
- Rubbing ice directly on the skin (ice massage) cools the area quickly and the cold water left behind helps to maintain the cooling effect. One method is to freeze water in a styrofoam cup then, once frozen, peel off part of the cup to use on the skin using the rest of the cup as a grip. It is important to continuously move the ice when applied directly to the skin to avoid ice burns
- In a plastic bag or wet towel to ice a large or awkward area. It can mould to or spread out over an area to achieve the best possible results
- Commercial Ice packs are effective and reusable, however; they don’t stay cold as long as ice does
How to apply heat
- To heat one area use a hot water bottle, heat pad or heat pack and only heat until warm, not hot, then apply for 10 to 20 minutes, as long as is comfortable – use for less time on smaller areas or longer for large areas
- To heat your full body use warm showers, spas or saunas, the damp heat is helpful and will relax your whole body not just the specifically tight muscles – use for as long as you feel comfortable but never get too hot
When not to use ice
- Never use ice before or while playing sport or exercising as you have a higher risk of injuring yourself further
- Applying ice to tight and painful muscles may aggravate the pain; you may feel a burning or aching pain while applying the ice – this is a sign ice is not appropriate to use for your pain
When not to use heat
- Never use heat on an infected or newly injured area
- If there is new or active inflammation – if the skin sensitive to touch, red and hot or there is significant swelling
- Directly after exercise
When using heat or ice, the most important thing is to listen to your body. Whichever you use should relieve your pain not make you feel worse.
Remember, if your aches and pains don’t settle quickly or keep recurring, you need to see your health care provider to find the cause of your pain
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