Ice and heat have both been used as an easy home remedy to relieve pain for ages. Due to their availability and effectiveness for reducing mild to moderate pain in most cases, they are often recommended to patients with a variety of painful disorders. But sadly some patients aren’t exactly sure when to use ice and when to use heat, and as a result, confusion may get the best of them.
Patients commonly ask us whether it’s better to use ice (cryotherapy) or heat (thermotherapy) to help reduce their pain. To understand which option is best in each case, we first need to explain what actually happens to the body during an injury.
When an injury occurs—let’s use an ankle sprain for this example—the soft tissue in the ankle becomes damaged and tiny blood vessels (capillaries) are broken. This leads to blood leaking into nearby tissues, and the excess blood eventually causes the main signs of inflammation in the ankle: swelling, redness, heat, pain and tenderness. Pain can also persist after inflammation reduces and can occur from other causes as well, and each of these situations requires a different approach.
To help you determine whether to use ice or heat for your pain, physical therapists in Shelby have broken down the specifics of what you need to know about each one:
Ice: applying ice constricts (shrinks) blood vessels, which numbs pain, relieves inflammation and limits bruising
- Ice should primarily be used for injuries or any other time there’s inflammation, as it will help to prevent further leakage of blood
- This includes strains, sprains and any other injuries that are less than six weeks old (acute), as well as gout flare-ups
- Best to use with the RICE protocol: Rest- minimize movement of the injured body part; Ice- apply ice for 15-20 minutes, 4-6 times a day for the first 48 hours; Compression- apply light pressure to the affected body part; Elevation- raise body part to reduce pressure from blood and tissue
- Always cover the ice and use ice packs, frozen food or gel packs
Heat: increases blood flow, which relaxes tight muscles and relieves aching joints
- Use heat for pain lasting longer than six weeks (chronic) or sore joints, including conditions like arthritis and back or neck pain
- Do not use for acute injuries, which can make it worse, or if you have diabetes or peripheral vascular disease
- Warm should be the goal of heat therapy, not hot; try using heating pads, heating wraps, steamed towels, warm baths and paraffin wax (use caution)
- Apply for 15-20 min. (or longer if advised) 3x/day for suggested duration
Also keep in mind that headaches are one exception that both ice and heat can help treat in different ways. If you’re still not certain whether ice or heat is best for your pain, Cleveland Physical Therapy Associates, with two locations in Shelby and Kings Mountain, NC, is happy to help you out. Call us at 704-471-0001 for more information on ice and heat or to schedule an appointment.