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Should I use ICE or HEAT?

Avoid this common mistake that could significantly affect your recovery and pain levels!

One of the questions I most frequently get asked by many clients in the clinic is “Should I use ICE or HEAT for my pain?”

Both ice and heat are amongst the most effective and cost effective ways that you can manage your own pain at home; however there is much confusion around which to use and when? Using the wrong type of treatment at the wrong time can have a significant affect on the speed of your recovery.  Avoid making this common mistake in your recovery by following these simple guidelines that we use with our clients.

I tell our clients that whether you use ICE or HEAT depends largely on whether your injury/pain is new or longstanding.

When a new injury occurs, usually from overuse or trauma, this will cause bleeding, inflammation and possibly swelling in the affected area. This period of time and for the next 48 hours is typically known as the acute phase.  Applying ICE at this stage will reduce blood flow to the injured area, decreasing inflammation and swelling.

It is important to know that although it may feel more comforting at the time; applying HEAT at this stage of injury will increase inflammation further and slow down the healing process!

Numerous times I have seen clients who have put HEAT on recent injuries (sometimes following advise given by their GP) and the affected area has swollen up like a ballon, being 3-4 times bigger than it had before and a lot more painful!

If your pain is longstanding or ‘chronic’ muscular or joint related pain, then applying heat can actually help by opening up blood vessels increasing blood flow and nutrients to the affected area to reduce pain, relax muscular spasm and increase mobility around stiff joints.

Conversely; less widely know is that the use of ICE in this chronic stage of injury/pain can also have a negative effect on your healing process; aggravating sensations of muscular pain and joint stiffness, making muscle tension and spasm worse!

So in short; HEAT can make inflammation worse, and ICE can make muscle tension and spasms worse!

Follow these simple guidelines to ensure that you don’t make this common mistake:

When to use ICE
  • 24 to 48 hours after injury
  • When inflammation and swelling is present
  • If the area of pain feels hot
  • If your pain is the result of recent overload i.e. exercise, bending, walking etc
When to use HEAT
  • Longstanding aches and pains
  • Stiff or Chronic joint and muscular pain
  • When inflammation and swelling has subsided
  • If your pain is the result being static for a period of time i.e. sitting at a desk, standing for periods etc
Precautions when applying ICE and HEAT

Take Care! – Although there are very little risks when using ICE and HEAT, precautions should be taken when applying to:

  • Damaged or broken areas of skin
  • Areas of skin with poor sensation to temperature change or feeling
  • Areas of known poor circulation or infection
  • Direct contact with Icing and heating devices –  wrap ICE and HEAT sources within a folded towel to prevent burns.
  • Prolonged exposure (no more than 15-20mins) note: excessive use of ICE and HEAT can cause tissue damage.

So there you have it, follow these simple guidelines and avoid making a potentially costly mistake in your recovery.

If still in doubt as to whether to apply ICE or HEAT to your injury or if your symptoms are not relieved within a few days of self care then get in touch with the clinic to see how we can help you further. 

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