Ice or Heat? I’m so Confused!

Should I use ice or heat? This is the question I hear most often working in rehabilitation. Whether your’e an Olympic athlete or if you require an aid to ambulate, we all get aches, pains and injuries. How do we know what form of hydrotherapy is most beneficial?

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Generally, ICE is for INJURIES and HEAT is for MUSCLE ACHES AND PAINS.

Ice: When your tissues are damaged or injured, your body creates a natural healing process to help heal the area. With blood and nutrients rushing to the affected area, this causes inflammation, heat, redness and swelling which can be incredibly painful. By icing the area, you will reduce the pain without the use of drugs.

When applying ice, you can use an icepack, ice, or basically anything malleable in the freezer, such as a bag of peas. Wrap the pack in a towel to prevent skin contact with the ice pack. Typically I’d advise to apply ice no longer then 15-20 minutes and always being aware of the tissues you are icing. If the area becomes numb, you maybe unable to detect if you are harming the tissues.

Rest, Compress and Elevation are typically the rules to follow when dealing with an injury such as breaks, sprains, and open wounds. Try these tips for up to 48 hours and if the problem has not decreased and the area is still extremely painful, follow-up with your doctor.

Heat: Heat is generally used for chronic muscle aches and pains and general tension in muscles. Heat relaxes tissues and releases tension spots called Trigger Points. Generally if someone has muscle tension such as a sore neck or lower back tightness, heat can help generate circulation and reduce muscle spasms.

I prefer an electric heat pack (with a timer for safety) however there are many forms of heat. Heat packs you put in the microwave have varying temperatures so be cautious. Always wrap the heat pack in a towel to be safe. I once lived in Australia and I sold heat packs which where made mostly of vinegar, salt and water. They were great to have for an instant need for heat, however, during the summer months, I’d advise just some basic sunshine to heat up the tissues. Don’t stay in direct sunshine for longer than 15 minutes to prevent a sun-burn.

Sometimes too much heat can cause the area to become inflamed which can increase irritation. This is when it becomes tricky. If you find the heat is causing more pain, try intervals of 10 minutes heat, 10 minutes ice. This will also increase circulation and both help relieve the tension and decrease the inflammation.

Remember, Ice is for an acute injury where you find, heat, redness and swelling. Heat is for muscle tension, aches and pains. When in doubt, ask your health care provider.

Michelle Wolfe, RMT

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