One of the most common questions we get is whether to use heat or ice for an injury. Both are beneficial when used properly, but the best option depends on what type of injury you’ve incurred.
When to use ice
Ice is the best option for an injury that is less than twenty-four hours old. Ice causes the blood vessels to narrow, which reduces inflammation. Cold packs are commonly used to reduce pain with sprains and bruises. To avoid frostbite, place a towel between your injury and the cold pack, in twenty minute intervals. More cold time does not equal less pain, it just increases your chances of getting frostbite on your skin.
Ice massage is a great way to relieve post-exercise joint pain. Apply ice directly to the sore area and massage it in a circular pattern (avoiding bony points) for four to seven minutes. The area will feel cold at first, then it will ache, then it will become numb.
When to use heat
Heat promotes muscle relaxation. Heat is a wonderful treatment for sore muscles and chronic pain, because it opens the blood vessels and helps to calm muscle spasms. Common uses for heat packs are to soothe pain in the back and neck, help relieve arthritis pain, and increase range of motion. Heat packs should not be used for more than thirty minutes at a time—and you should never apply heat when you are sleeping, as you run the risk of burning the skin.
Ice and heat can be a safe and inexpensive method of reducing pain, whether it be chronic or a new injury. But it is important to remember which method is best for your condition. When the use of heat and ice gets mixed up, it can make the pain worse: Ice can aggravate muscle spasms and heat can make inflammation worse.
If you have questions on an injury, one of our physical therapists can offer advice as to the safest way to eliminate the discomfort. Always remember, pain does not have to be a way of life.
Gina Otterbein and Janis Kemper are licensed Physical Therapists and Co-Owners of Northern Physical Therapy. Northern Physical Therapy has five West Michigan locations, with therapists specializing in women’s health, fitness, and back and neck pain. The company is currently celebrating its twentieth year in business! More information can be found at www.northernpts.com.