Do I Use Ice or Heat?

Heat and ice treatments are popular treatments methods used every day, although are often misused.  However, using the wrong one could slow down the recovery process or even make the problem worse.  So when should you use heat and when should you use ice?

Ice can be used following acute injuries with inflammation.  For example; a lateral ankle sprain.  It can help calm superficial tissues that are red, hot and swollen, like the skin and underlying structures.  Inflammation is a normal process that needs to happen following injury, to allow recovery, however can be incredibly painful.  Ice is an easily accessible, drugless way of minimising the pain.  Ice will:

  • Reduce bleeding to the tissues
  • Prevent/reduce swelling
  • Reduce pain through numbing

Heat can be used for muscle soreness, chronic pain and stress.  It can assist in relaxing and reducing painful muscle spasm and trigger points, or conditions that are associated with them.  For example; muscular neck and back pain.  Heat causes dilation (widening) of blood vessels, bringing more blood to the area to stimulate tissue healing.  It can ease muscle stiffness by making the muscle more pliable, relieving pain and spasm.  Heat is often useful is the following situations:

  • Aching muscles
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Cramping/spasm

Common applications of heat include; wheat bags, heat pads, deep heat cream, hot water bottle or heat lamp.

So when should you not use them?

Heat and inflammation are not a good match.  Heat should not be used on a new injury, it will enhance bleeding under the skin and may be detrimental to recovery.  It may encourage excess swelling, therefore limiting range of motion and causing more pain.

Ice can aggravate muscle stiffness and pain.  However, sometimes it is easy to identify trigger points as an ‘iceable’ injury.  This may develop the pain further and cause an acute burning sensation.

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