Do I Choose Ice or Heat?

When people get injured, they always seem to be confused by the choice between ice or heat. There are definitely very clear scenarios when you want to pick one or the other. In this blog, we are going to set the misconceptions straight and explain when you should go with ice or heat.

Here is the short answer:

  • Choose ice for initial injuries or anything that involves inflammation.
  • Choose heat for muscle stiffness or anything where circulation could be improved.

Choosing between ice or heat is a pretty straightforward once you understand the mechanics behind your injuries. Basic injuries like cuts, scratches or bruises will cause a localized inflammation, as our body sends white blood cells into the area to fight any infections. The inflammation will present as redness or swelling in the affected area.

Inflammation may also produce flu-like symptoms—including heat! That`s why it is never a good idea to treat inflammations with heat therapy. It is very common for people to put heat on injuries, but this can cause problems further down the road. When hot packs are used to treat inflammation, this can cause an increase in both the pain and the swelling of the injury. So remember to use an ice pack on anything that is inflamed!

When an ice pack is used on stiff muscles, this can exacerbate any muscle pain that you are experiencing. Cases of lower back pain or neck pain can often be mistaken for iceable injuries, when they need their circulation to be improved. You will be able to tell quickly that you made the wrong choice. Make sure you correct your mistake and switch to heat if this happens!

Cold Therapy

Ice therapy (or cryotherapy) is great for recently pulled or strained muscles, as well as hurt or tingling sensations. The cold will narrow the blood vessels and reduce flow to the impacted area to decrease inflammation. Take a gel pack or cold compress and wrap it in a kitchen towel, then apply to your injury. Remember to take it off periodically, so you don’t ice the area for too long. Listen to what your body is telling you, in terms of what feels good—and follow the instructions of your doctor if it’s a serious injury!

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy (or thermotherapy) is good for stiff or sore muscles, arthritis and chronic pain. Heat will promote circulation in your body and help remove a buildup of lactic acid. Heat and stretching is great for when you feel tight after a long workout, such as a long bike ride or a serious hike. If an old injury is causing you discomfort, that’s another time when heat is appropriate—NOT if it’s been recently injured. Use a heat pack or hot water bottle to treat the sore muscles.

A few types of injuries are an exception to both rules. If you are unfortunate enough to burn yourself, stabilize the area using lukewarm water and go to the hospital if the burn is severe enough! Mild frostbite or hypothermia are also conditions that warrant a gradual readjustment to normal temperatures. Begin with lukewarm water and gradually increase the heat as the condition of your patient improves.

With any injury, it is very important to listen to the signals from your body. If you are in acute pain after an injury, you should go to the hospital immediately. If ice or heat is not providing relief, then you may want to try another option!

If you are experiencing chronic pain from an old injury, then the team at Dr. Lee’s Health & Wellness may be able to help. Contact us if you’d like to book an appointment.


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