Myth #11 The Pain Debate

Ice vs Heat: The Pain Debate

Using an ice or heat pack is a common natural remedy for musculoskeletal aches and pains.  When used correctly, the benefits are clear and improvements can be made quickly and effectively. However, these treatments are not interchangeable.  When used incorrectly, you can actually be doing your body harm and reverse the healing process.  Let’s take a look at each. 

Ice is for Injury

For the most part, new injuries are best treated with ice.  In an acute, musculoskeletal injury, soft tissue is the most common body part that will be damaged.  Soft tissue includes your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and possibly discs in the spine.  When this tissue is damaged, chemicals are released from within the cell membranes into the surrounding areas.  These chemicals will begin a cascade of events that will ultimately lead to the inflammation response.  Local blood flow will increase to the affected area, bringing nutrients to heal the damaged tissue.  This response is normal for an acute injury, but needs to be kept under control to avoid long-term issues.  Icing the injured area will constrict blood vessels, keeping the inflammation response to a safe, healthy level.  The ice will also numb the area, reducing pain levels.  One of my favorite techniques for icing soft tissue injuries is an ice massage.  To do this, fill a paper Dixie cup with water, and put it in the freezer.  Once frozen, peel back the top of the paper cup and use the revealed ice to massage the area directly on the skin.  The remaining paper will provide a nice handle.  The ice will provide the benefits previously discussed, while the massage will help work out any inflammation that has already pooled up in the area.  This is much more effective than using a traditional ice pack in one position.  My recommendation is to ice for 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off, in two-hour blocks.  

Heat is for Chronic Conditions

Heat a great method for relief from muscle and joint aches and muscle pains that have lasted longer than 2 months.  The most common condition that heat is used to treat is degenerative arthritis. In this scenario, cartilage between joint surfaces has become worn down over time, the joints become stiff and immobile, and surrounding muscles are tight from lack of mobility.  Heating these areas will increase blood circulation, easing the stiff joints and tight muscles.  Along with active mobility and stretching, this can greatly benefit an arthritic joint and help prevent the arthritis from progressing.  The issue with heat packs is that many people use them for new injuries.  As I mentioned, heat will increase local blood flow to the applied area.  When a new injury occurs and inflammation is building up, heat will increase the inflammation to the damaged area.  This could make the swelling pool up even more, and potentially delay the healing process.  Although the heat may feel good at the time, treating a new injury with heat is actually doing your body harm. 

Knowing when to use ice or heat can be a huge benefit to your at-home treatment. However, using them incorrectly can cause you harm.  It’s always best to consult with a professional if you have any questions.  We’d be happy to help!