Our clients often ask us if they should use heat or ice for pain they are experiencing. Icing (a.k.a. cryotherapy) and heating (a.k.a. thermotherapy) are both effective self-treatment options. Here is an overview to help you understand when you should use ice and when you should use heat for treatment.
Ice should be used for new or recent injuries (24-48 hours after an injury). Icing can numb the pain you feel temporarily. Ice helps calm down damaged tissues that are inflamed and swollen. It can be used to decrease swelling because when ice is applied to your skin, the local blood vessels constrict or become more narrow and therefore directs blood flow away from the area being iced. This can aide in minimizing swelling and local inflammation. Ice should only be applied for 10-15 minutes at a time and can be combined with elevation and compression for best results. Ice can also be used after exercise or after activities that increase swelling and pain.
Heat is helpful when your muscles are sore and/or tight. It can help reduce the pain of muscle spasms and muscle adhesions. Heat often feels nice when applied to the neck and back. Heat is not typically recommended if you have swelling or inflammation and especially should not be applied to an area where there has been a very recent injury. When heat is applied, local blood vessels dilate or expand which promotes increased blood flow and circulation into the area. Heat can also help with osteoarthritis to increase range of motion and, therefore, decrease pain. Heat Increases circulation, metabolic activity, and inflammation. Heat improves the compliance of soft tissues and is often used before or during a massage. Heat can be used to warm up stiff or scarred tissues before stretching or range of motion exercises.
Do not use ice or heat over areas where the skin is irritated, infected, has decreased sensation to heat or cold, or over areas of the body with poor circulation. It is always best to speak to a health care professional if you are unsure of whether to use ice or heat. Your physiotherapist, massage therapist or chiropractor will be able to inform you of the best course of action for your specific condition.