Ice or Heat? The Great Debate

Attribution: ©Flickr CC - "Untitled" 20010 by Morgan

Attribution: ©Flickr CC – “Untitled” 20010 by Morgan

So, despite your excellent posture, good lifting techniques, regular exercise and conditioning, you’ve managed to injure yourself. It happens, but what now?

Ice packs and heat pads are the most commonly used treatments for musculoskeletal injuries. Ice packs are most effective with a recent injury (within 48 hours) and help decrease pain and inflammation. Swelling is the major cause of tissue damage secondary to the original injury and is part of what causes pain and lasting injury. The cold first pushes blood and inflammatory chemicals out of the area and when the tissue warms up it brings fresh nutrients with it. The old motto of “PRICE” (Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) has been borne out as effective in many studies.

Heat treatment pulls blood to the area, just as ice does. This is beneficial for loosening muscles as the increased blood flow improves tissue flexibility, relief of cramping and improved range of motion. The downside is that all that blood rushing into an area causes swelling. Sometimes swelling can increase tissue damage and lead to exacerbation of a recent injury. Typically, heat should be used for chronic conditions like old injuries or arthritis to help relax and loosen tissues and ice for acute injuries.

Both therapies are very effective and have enough crossover in their effect that using either can be beneficial. Some people even advocate alternating heat and cold to get the best of both therapies. If it works for you stick with it, but in an acute injury, try ice first.

In either case, leave the ice or heat on the area for 15 minutes and off for 45 minutes. This on and off pattern can be repeated as many times as possible. Long durations of application more than 20 minutes can cause frostbite or burns. Ice should be applied with a paper towel or t-shirt between the ice and your skin to prevent frostbite, but too thick a towel renders the ice ineffective. Similarly, heat pads should have a thin covering between you and the heat source and avoid falling asleep on heat, which is how most burns occur.

We encourage you to take good care of your body and often minor injuries will resolve with ice or heat in a couple of days. If pain persists or gets worse after two days or if you experience numbness, tingling or weakness in your arms or legs, call LGCWC immediately to schedule an appointment and get a detailed examination.

Originally article post July 2012

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