One of the first questions that comes to mind following getting hurt is do I ice or heat my injury? Many people reach in the freezer for a cold pack or plug in the heating pad for a variety of reasons, but which modality is really the best to use following injury? The answer? It depends!
When Should I Use Ice?
Cold therapy or ice on an affected area causes vasoconstriction (narrowing) of the blood vessels in that area. When blood vessels narrow, that reduces the blood flow to the area which can help reduce swelling. Following an acute injury, which is in the hours and days immediately following, using ice can help decrease inflammation and swelling in an area. Therefore, ice is best used directly following an injury or in the days following an orthopedic surgery. Additionally, ice can numb an area and slow down the conduction of pain signals from the nerves to the brain. This is the reason that injured areas often feel better after we ice them.
How to Use Ice?
When using ice, it is important to place a layer in between your skin and the ice such as a piece of clothing, a pillowcase, or for those with conditions that decrease tolerance to cold even a towel. Leaving ice directly on the skin can cause a freezer-burn effect on the skin resulting in pain and rash. When using ice, leave on for 10-15 minutes, then remove.
When Should I Use Heat?
Heat works as a vasodilator, widening the diameter of blood vessels, opening them up to promote increased blood flow to the area. Heat is best used for injuries outside of the initial acute time period. For example, in chronic neck and back pain, heat is often a better option for pain reduction. Opening the blood vessels allows healing cells to reach the affected area. Heat can also help relax tense, knotted up muscles, thus relieving tension and decreasing pain.
How to Use Heat?
When using heat, safety is a major concern. Placing appropriate layers between the heat source and your skin is very important. If heat is placed directly on the skin, burns—sometimes severe—can occur. Those who have conditions that decrease sensation such as diabetes, nerve damage, or those over 65, should take particular caution when using heat.
Ice vs heat is a topic that is frequently debated. In chronic injuries, using what makes it feel better is often the best answer. If your back flares up after a long day working in the yard and ice works better to relieve your pain than heat, use ice. In the event of injury, do not rely on modalities like ice or heat alone, be sure to call Venture Rehab to address your injury be it acute or chronic. Our university-trained therapists offer timely appointments that help relieve pain and get you back to the things you enjoy.