When to Ice, When to Heat

So which one is the right one to use, ice or heat? And how long should the ice or heat treatments last?

Injuries cause Inflammation, pressure, and swelling. And this is why pain can be so hard to manage. Ice helps reduce inflammation and numb pain. Heat helps relax muscles and stiff joints. While heat helps improve circulation and blood flow, ice reduces blood flow thereby reducing inflammation and swelling.

Ice Treatments

Ice treatments are most commonly used for acute injuries. If you experience an injury where swelling is a problem and it has been less than 48 hours, an ice treatment should be used. Ice packs can help minimize swelling around the injury, reduce bleeding into the tissues, and reducing muscle spasms and pain.

Ice packs are often used after injuries such as an ankle sprain. Applying an ice pack early and often for the first 48 hours will help minimize swelling. Doing so will help to control the pain.

Ice treatments may also be used for chronic conditions, such as athletes who experience overuse injuries. In this case, ice the injured area after activity to help control inflammation. Avoid icing a chronic injury before activity.

You can make ice packs with ice cubes in a plastic bag, wrap ice cubes in a towel, or use a pack of frozen peas. When applying ice directly onto an injury, keep the pack moving to avoid ice burns. Remove the pack immediately if the injury appears bright pink or red. In general, you should only use ice for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. If you are not doing an ice massage and holding the ice pack still, you must place a paper towel in between the ice and your skin to prevent ice burns.

Heat Treatment

Heat treatments should be used for chronic conditions to help relax tight muscles and relieve aching joints. Heat helps to improve range of motion on a joint that is not moving as well. For inflammation of joints caused by arthritis, using moist heat, like a soak in a tub or shower helps.

Do not use heat treatments after activity, or after an acute injury. A rule of thumb is to “Warm up, cool down.” Apply warm heat before an activity and ice after an activity.

Do not use heat where swelling is involved. Swelling is caused by bleeding in the tissue and heat just causes more blood to come to the area.