Heat vs. Ice: Which Should You Use and When?

Ice and heat for therapeutic purposes are both tried and true self-treatment options that have little to no associated cost or risk.  This makes them common go-tos for everything from sprains to muscle spasms, but understanding which therapy is best for a given injury is often a point of confusion.  The two serve important but different purposes and cannot be used interchangeably.  In order to make these treatments effective and avoid exacerbating a painful condition, it’s important to understand the function of each.

When to Apply Heat

Ask anyone with chronic pain, and most will tell you that they rely regularly on heat as a means to relieve their symptoms.  Discomfort associated with stiffness or cramping typically responds best.  Patients who have injuries from over-exertion, knots, muscle tension, arthritis and trigger points are most likely to have a positive response to thermotherapy. 

Of course, there are conditions which can be made worse by application of heat.  Fresh injuries, infections, and inflammation should never be subjected to heat therapy.  Determining the difference between an actual injury with damage and soreness can be difficult, especially when conditions such as chronic back pain are all too common.  If you aren’t sure of the nature of your pain, seek guidance from your physician before attempting any form of self-treatment.

When to Apply Ice

While heat serves its purpose, ice is the relied upon method to quickly soothe injury and inflammation.  Common conditions which may benefit from cryotherapy include sprains, bruises, strains, tendonitis, and headaches.  By applying ice to these injuries, nerve endings become numb, capillaries constrict, and metabolic activity slows, all adding up to less inflammation and pain.  Used within the first 24-48 hours of an injury, ice can have a positive impact.

The confusion over when to use ice or heat is understandable.  When in doubt, remember that ice is best used on new injuries to numb pain and reduce bruising and inflammation, and heat is best suited for aching joints or tight muscles that will benefit from increased blood flow.  Both are good self-treatment options when used appropriately.

Of course, ice and heat may offer some temporary, symptomatic relief, but they will do little good to help heal an injury or reduce the ability of chronic pain to interfere with day-to-day life.  For treatment of these types of conditions, seek the aid of your physician or chiropractor.  Particularly for pain originating from soft tissue injuries in the neck or back, chiropractic can provide even greater relief than pain medication, epidural injections, or other available therapies.