The human body is an incredible thing, but when you become injured, you may feel like your body is working against you. Whether you’re a full-time athlete, an office worker or a senior enjoying your retirement, injuries are an inevitable part of life. The good news is that, while you may feel like your body is causing you problems, it’s working hard to overcome the injury. That said, there are some ways you can help it along. In some cases, our bodies become overzealous about healing an injury, which can cause excessive swelling and pain.
So, how can you help an injury heal, all while keeping pain and inflammation down? Conventional wisdom says ice and heat can help accomplish these goals, but you may be asking yourself, “Should I use ice or heat for pain?” The answer depends on a few different factors, such as when you got injured, what type of pain you’re experiencing and more. In this post, we’ll talk about ice and heat, looking at how these two different types of therapy affect your body, when to use them and how to use them. We’ll finish with a pros and cons list for each method.
Whether you’ve experienced an injury or you want to prepare for the future, keep reading to learn more about the best ways to use ice and heat to treat pain and injuries.
Before we look at when ice is the right way to treat an injury, it’s helpful to understand what ice does to your body. In short, ice can help reduce:
When you get injured, it’s natural for the site of the injury to become inflamed. Inflammation, which involves swelling of the tissue and blood vessels, is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a natural part of healing and allows immune cells to better access the injured area. Though inflammation can be positive, to an extent, it can also get out of hand and cause debilitating swelling and pain. Ice reduces swelling and inflammation.
We’ll talk more about the potential adverse effects of ice in the pros and cons section, but it’s worth mentioning here that ice causes muscles to tighten, which may not always be what you want. If applied for too long, ice can also cause serious issues like frostbite.
So, is it better to ice or heat an injury? In this section, let’s focus on times when it’s better to use ice.
Sometimes, an injury is unmistakable. You may feel your muscle tear, hear a pop in a joint or feel a sharp pain that indicates you’ve hurt yourself. When this happens, it’s usually smart to start icing right away. We’ll talk about how to do that later in this post. Even if you can’t pinpoint the moment of injury, if you just engaged in physical activity and now a specific area on your body is throbbing, you should operate under the assumption that you injured yourself and start icing the painful area.
Another way to answer the question of ice vs. heat for pain is to look at times when you definitely should not use ice. In some of these cases, as we’ll see soon, heat is a much better choice. In other cases, you may need to refrain from any self-treatment. Here are a few instances when you should not apply ice to your body.
In many ways, heat has the opposite effect of ice. Whereas ice causes muscles to tighten and restricts blood flow, heat:
Many things can cause your muscles to become stiff and painful. For example, you may experience lower back pain after a day of moving heavy objects. Working or studying in a seated position can lead to neck pain. Whatever the cause, applying heat to the tight or achy area should have a soothing effect and cause the muscle to loosen.
Seeing as ice and heat have such different effects on the body, it’s no wonder the two remedies are not interchangeable. So, when is heat the right choice for an injury? Here are some instances when heat is the best choice.
In general, heat is a better option for more minor aches and pains, as opposed to serious injuries. So, if you’re wondering, “Should I ice or heat an injury?” the answer is most likely ice. However, heat therapy is typically the best option if you’re not sure what’s causing your pain and it’s more of a general ache. As always, if you don’t know what to do, consult a doctor to learn more about the source of your pain and how you should treat it.
We just looked at some instances where heat is an effective form of treatment, but there are other times when heat therapy can do more harm than good. Let’s take a look at some instances when you should not use heat.
In some cases, ice and heat can work together to help relieve pain. Alternating ice and heat is called contrasting therapy, and it’s especially common for arthritis patients. Ice helps reduce swelling and acute pain, and heat helps soothe stiff joints. If you have arthritis, you should work with your doctor to develop a treatment plan to manage your discomfort.
Ice and heat can both come in handy for treating an acute injury, but you should use them at different stages. You can use ice initially to reduce swelling and then, once the injury has mostly healed, use heat to soothe any remaining feelings of soreness. For example, one-third of people who sprain an ankle experience residual symptoms even after the injury has healed. If the symptom is swelling, ice is still best, but if it’s a dull ache or stiffness, heat can help bring some relief.
If you have an overuse injury, which is common for athletes, both ice and heat can help you manage the pain and keep the injury from worsening. In the case of overuse, apply heat to the injury before your physical activity, then use ice on the area after the physical activity.
Now that you know when to use ice, let’s talk about how you should use it. Ice therapy can come in the form of an ice massage, ice baths or coolant sprays, but the most common form is an ice pack. Because people most often use ice to treat acute injuries, an ice pack is typically all you need to get the job done. You can make an ice pack by filling a bag with ice, or you can purchase reusable ice packs from the store.
Let’s look at a few essential do’s and don’ts when it comes to ice therapy.
Beyond these basic instructions, you should talk to your doctor about the best icing regimen for your injury. Some doctors may recommend a plan like 20 minutes on, 30 minutes off, meaning you should ice for 20 minutes, then wait another 30 minutes before icing again. A schedule like this would apply to a recent injury that is still swollen.
There are various ways to categorize heat therapy. For instance, there’s dry heat and moist heat. Another distinction we can make is between acute and whole-body heat therapy. For example, a heating pad is an example of dry heat for an acute injury, while a sauna is a whole-body dry heat method. A hot bath is an example of whole-body, moist heat therapy. If you wanted to treat an acute area with moist heat, you could use a damp, steaming towel.
So, how do you use these various forms of heat therapy? Here are a few basic do’s and don’ts.
If you find you’re relying on heat to treat pain regularly, you should schedule an appointment with a doctor to talk about what might be causing the ongoing discomfort. Heat therapy may be the best way to treat your pain, but in some cases, there may be an underlying injury or other cause to address.
To summarize, let’s take a moment to look at the pros and cons of ice, and then we’ll look at the pros and cons of heat. Ice has some critical advantages, when used correctly.
Now, let’s summarize the pros and cons of heat. Like ice, heat has unique advantages, as well as some disadvantages when it comes to treating an injury or pain.
If you’ve tried treating an injury or chronic pain with ice or heat therapy and you do not see the results you would like, the problem may be more severe than you previously realized. If this is the case, you should schedule an appointment with a doctor right away. Depending on what is causing your discomfort, the doctor may recommend physical therapy, surgery or another treatment method. You may also need to take medication to help manage pain.
If you live in Maryland and you aren’t already a patient with OrthoBethesda, consider making an appointment with one of our caring, experienced doctors. Our orthopedic doctors are committed to helping you understand your injury or chronic pain and to treating the issue at its source. We’ve provided the state with quality orthopedic care for five decades. Contact us online or give us a call at (301) 530-1010 to make an appointment today!