Ice or Heat for Injuries?

November 29th, 2014

Ice vs. Heat

Cold and hot packs are a great way to supplement your treatment outside the office and help soothe everyday aches and pains. Knowing which one to use and when can make the difference between making your symptoms better or worse.

This is one of the most common questions I get asked here at the clinic so here is the advice I typically give:
In most cases heat is typically the better option, that being said, cold therapy certainly has its place.

If you are suffering from muscle spasm or trigger point pain, avoid ice at all costs! Cold therapy tends to make muscles contract more, which is exactly the opposite of what you want in these conditions.

That being said, if you have just injured yourself and can sense a lot of swelling and heat in the area then ice is the best choice, but only for a limited time. I typically recommend using ice in these situations only if you can get it on the area within the first 45 minutes to an hour. After that, you are much better off compressing the area with an ace bandage or support garment.

Cold or ice baths can also be a great way to help your body recover after an intense training session or strenuous activity. The same rule about timing from above applies here as well. After about an hour the therapeutic benefit of cold baths tends to diminish quickly.

As I had stated earlier I tend to prefer heat in a majority of cases. It tends to have the greatest effect on relaxing tight and sore muscles and tends to be better tolerated by people than cold therapy.

If you have a recent injury that is swollen, warm, and red however, heat may not be the best option and could end up making your symptoms worse. It’s probably best to avoid heat in these cases until the area has calmed down, opting instead to focus on compression of the area and using ice for pain control.

Application Times

In either case I tend to recommend the following dosages:

– A maximum of 20 minutes of either ice or heat with at least an hour between applications

– Remove the cold therapy if you begin to feel numbness or tingling as this can be an indication of developing nerve damage.

– Remove the hot pack if the area becomes intensely red, or you sense that you are being burned.

– Do not use either in an area of diminished sensation for the reasons above.

These packs are my favorite and can be used for both hot and cold applications which make them pretty versatile and great to have around in a pinch!

Make sure to contact the office if you have any questions about whether you should be icing or heating something.