Heat vs. Ice: When to use what…

Yesterday I was asked “How do I know if I should be using heat or ice?”. The basic answer for me is, if it feels squishy firm it up with ice, if it feels solid melt it down with heat. There question answered! 😉 But lets look into this a bit more and see where the science comes into play.

Ice Therapy:

When injured, muscles respond by going into protective mode and swelling in the area of the injury. However, sometimes the body doesn’t know when to stop swelling. This is where ice comes in. Ice is a vaso-constrictor (it causes the blood vessels to narrow) and it limits internal swelling at the injury site. Most commonly used for acute injuries, ice is great if you have a recent injury (within the last 48 hours) where swelling is a problem. Ice acts as an analgesic by decreasing swelling around the injury, that can help to control the pain. Ice can also be used for chronic conditions, such as overuse injuries. In these cases it’s important to remember to ice the injured area after the activity to help control inflammation. Never ice a chronic injury before activity. Do not apply ice for longer than 20 minutes at a time. Too much ice can do harm, more ice does not mean more relief. Allow the skin temperature to return to normal before icing a second or third time. You can ice an acute injury several times a day for up to three days. The best method of recovery after a minor muscle or ligament injury is the famous RICE method — rest, ice, compression, and elevation. If this method doesn’t help and you experience persistent pain or swelling, it’s time to consult a physician.

So the break down of how ice helps:

  • Slows the inflammation and swelling that occurs after injury.
  • Helps to relieve the pain by numbing sore tissues (like a local anesthetic).
  • Slows the nerve impulses in the area, which interrupts the pain-spasm reaction in the nerves.

Heat Therapy:

Heat is generally used for chronic injuries or injuries that have no inflammation or swelling. Sore, stiff muscle or joint pain is best treated with heat therapy. Heat is a vaso-dilation. By applying heat to sore and tight muscles increases blood flow to the area. With increased blood flow also comes more oxygen. As more “new” blood flow in, more “old” blood flow out. With the increased flow of blood, toxins in the blood which cause chronic muscle soreness and stiffness are removed. The nutrients and oxygen in the “new” blood help the healing process of injured muscles. Heat can also help to reduce pain, and increase flexibility. Use heat before activities that irritate chronic injuries such as muscle strains. Athletes with chronic pain or injuries may use heat therapy before exercise to increase the elasticity of joint connective tissues and to stimulate blood flow. Heat can also help relax tight muscles or muscle spasms. Moist heat is best, so you could try using a hot wet towel. It’s not necessary to keep heat on for more than about 20 minutes at a time and use enough layers between your skin and the heating source to prevent burns. Never apply heat while sleeping. Because heat increases circulation and raises skin temperature, you should not apply heat to acute injuries or injuries that show signs of inflammation. If this method doesn’t help and you experience persistent pain or swelling, it’s time to consult a physician.

So the break down of how heat helps:

  • Heat can help loosen tissues and relax injured areas.
  • Increases blood flow to speed up muscle recovery
  • Great for chronic muscle soreness

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