Have you ever been in bad pain, with an ice pack in one hand and a heat pack in the other, trying to figure out which one to use? Often it seems as though everyone has different opinions and reasons for their recommendations, leaving you ready to throw both in the garbage. Well, the quick answer is that ice is for injuries, and heat is for muscles. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Here’s the lowdown on the proper therapy for your issue so you can get your body better, quicker.
Ice therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is mostly used for acute (immediate) injuries. Acute injuries are short-term injuries with damaged tissues that are inflamed, hot, and swollen. Icing is not only a drug-free, mild way of dulling the pain of the inflammation, but it also helps to remove fluids from the site, allowing the injury to heal more quickly.
Here are some common acute injuries that you should use ice with:
- Ankle sprain
- Knee sprain
- Muscle or joint sprain
- Red, hot, or swollen body parts
When you ice, it’s important to make sure the ice source stays consistently cold. Ice packs, frozen produce, and frozen veggies tend to thaw as they stay on your skin, thus rendering themselves ineffective. The best thing to do is to put ice into a Ziplock storage bag and place it directly on the inflamed area for 15–20 minutes. It’ll feel pretty cold at first (especially if the area is really inflamed) but will quickly numb and feel better.
Heat therapy, also known as thermotherapy, is for the treatment of sore muscles, chronic pain, and stress. It’s for taking the edge off the pain of muscle spasms and trigger points, or conditions that they affect, like back pain and neck pain. It’s also good for soothing your nervous system and helping you manage stress; it can even help your muscles loosen up before you work out or stretch!
Basically, heat therapy does the opposite of what cold therapy does. Cold therapy constricts blood vessels, whereas heat allows your blood vessels to expand and your muscles to relax. Like cold therapy, it also can help you with pain by stimulating circulation and making your tissue more elastic.
Some common chronic conditions that you should use ice with are:
- Muscle pain or soreness
- Stiff joints
- Old/recurring injuries
To give your muscles some heat you can use a hot, wet towel or heating pad/pack. Sometimes a hot bath or shower can do the trick as well!
So if you ice injuries and heat muscle pain, what do you do if you injure a muscle (tear or strain)? The right answer is…both! Start with icing the injury first. Then after a couple of days when you notice the swelling subside, switch to heat.
Most of these are recommendations and by no means rules! Ultimately, it comes down to your preference.
It was recommended to me that I submerge my body in ice after every half marathon to avoid or quickly treat any minor acute injuries. Honestly, I tried it once and never did it again. It was torture! I’ve since taken to soaking in hot baths after my races and have fared just fine. It may take me just a bit longer to recover but I think it’s worth it.
You can do the same. If you start to use one type of therapy and you don’t like the results you get, try the other. The whole point is to alleviate pain and to make you feel better, not worse.
However…as I say this I need to point out that there’s one thing you should never do. And that’s add heat to a fresh injury. Heat and inflammation are a particularly bad combination and you’ll end up making your injury worse. It’s also important to note that ice can make muscle tension and spasms worse, but that’s not always the case. If you have further questions about the best way to treat injuries, always check in with your healthcare provider.