Heat or Ice: What’s Better, When?

heat and ice therapy

There’s so much confusion about whether to apply heat or ice.  To that end, I’ve put together this brief guide in the interest of educating my readers to clear up that confusion.

While some of you are old hands, people new to DIY injury treatment should follow the guidelines offered in this post toward more rapid and thorough healing and recovery.

What Heat and Ice Do

Cryotherapy (ice) and thermotherapy (heat) perform different functions when it comes to treating pain.

Fresh injuries respond best to ice.  When an injury occurs to soft tissue, it becomes swollen, hot and inflamed.  Inflammation is the body’s normal response to trauma.  But it can be excruciatingly painful.

Ice numbs the area that’s hurting, serving to reduce swelling and inflammation.  When applied for brief periods throughout the first 24 hours of an injury’s life, it’s a helpful, drug-free way to treat the pain.

Heat, on the other hand is for stress, chronic pain and muscles.  Chronic pain can come with a great deal of stress and anxiety.  Applying heat is a comforting practice that allows the painful area to relax and “unclench”.  At the same time, you’re soothed, which reduces the stress of constantly waiting for the next bout to start.

But heat and ice will sometimes be prescribed in tandem.  This is a newer type of therapy which alternates the two modalities and has not yet been proven effective by research.  Known as contrasting therapy, some practitioners use it to push along recovery from injuries.

The “don’ts”

While you may not believe it, you should.  Using heat and ice inappropriately can exacerbate your injury or pain.  When muscles are stiff and tight, the last thing they want is to be numbed.  Anyone who’s experienced extreme cold in winter knows that’s true.

And applying heat to an inflamed area will make the injury worse.  It’s already hot and inflamed, so what would adding fuel to that fire accomplish?

Of the two, though, it’s ice which the body will respond most dramatically to.  If you apply ice to muscles which need heat, the body’s response is to identify an immediate threat to its wellbeing and pain signals to the brain will increase.

Which Is the Better Therapy?

Heat and ice have very distinct roles, so applying a value judgement isn’t appropriate here.  And it’s important to know that heat and ice are only stop gap measures – ice to reduce inflammation and heat to relax muscles temporarily.

Ultimately, though, neither is the ideal solution to your pain.  Both heat and ice are limited in what they can do.  That said, they’re effective short-term solutions which are inexpensive and completely safe, when applied correctly.

Come See Us

If you suffer from chronic pain or have been injured recently, the clinical team at Back & Body Medical can help.

We’re pain relief specialists who deploy therapies from chiropractic, acupuncture, sports medicine and physical therapy.  Our award-winning clinic in the heart of Manhattan takes you well beyond heat and ice to healing and freedom from pain.  Contact us.

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