When Should I Use Ice or Heat?
This is a question I get multiple times every day. The best way to answer the question, once and for all, is to post it publicly for everyone to see?
If you want the short and condensed answer, then skip all the way to the last paragraph.
When to Use Heat
Use heat when your injury is based on tight muscles. If you have tight muscles, then this will help to relax the muscles and relieve the tension. But sometimes it’s just not that simple. If you apply heat to a muscle that is cramping or in spasm, you are likely to dehydrate the muscle and cause more muscle spasms. One of my best kept little secrets is to apply a damp washcloth to the area, and then put the warm compress (the heat) on top of it. This ensures that you drive moisture into the muscles to prevent them from dehydrating.
Heat is a wonderful way to ease any pain or discomfort but is less effective at reducing swelling and inflammation than ice. Great ways to apply heat are through a hot water bottle, warm compress, or a warm wet towel.
When to use ice
It’s best to use ice 90% of the time. Ice helps to construct the blood vessels and prevent information. This is what you want after an injury. If you hurt yourself or injured something, the last thing you want is for the injured area to blow up like a balloon, swell up and attract inflammatory cytokines to the area. This will cause intense pain, and I’m assuming that’s not what you want.
This is a mistake that I often see. Patients started to feel a little sore in the neck, so here she applies heat or falls asleep on a heating pad. Then the patient wakes up unable to move the neck. This is classic, and I see it over and over and over. If the patient had put heat on the injury, here she probably would’ve been able to avoid a trip to my office. I’m serious.…this is a huge mistake that people make.
Remember to never apply ice directly on to bare skin. Use a towel or a piece of cloth to prevent your skin from being damaged. The primary purpose of applying ice is to reduce swelling and inflammation.
Alternating Ice and Heat
To get the best of both worlds of ice and heat, try using some ice to reduce the swelling and inflammation. Once the swelling is gone utilize some heat to help warm up the muscles and tendons while also reintroducing moisture as mentioned before. Remember not to overdo it with either ice or heat. You want to ease your body with the temperature not force it.
If you injure yourself, and you would like to get out of pain as quickly as possible, then you need to use ice. Here is a great resource that you can utilize to be able to apply the ice correctly and get the most benefit.