Ice or Heat? When you suffer from an injury or are in need of pain relief, this question arises quite frequently. Most often apply the solution that our mothers gave us or what our best friend who also suffered from the same the injury or pain did.
While some say ice is better for your pain, others claim that heat will do the trick. But how can you tell which is more appropriate for the type of injury you’ve sustained or pain you are feeling? And what is the best way to apply ice or heat?
With many differing and conflicting opinions, let us help clarify what is the most effective way to use ice and/or heat to help you return to the best of health.
Nature Knows Best
Safe, natural and effective pain relief is found in ice and heat. When ice and heat are applied correctly, it will offer you natural and effective pain relief to precisely affected area, unlike pain medication.
Pain medication has to be swallowed, digested and assimilated which can affect your entire body. Unfortunately, most often leaving a trail of potential side-effects.
Ice It Down
With an acute or new injury, ice is very effective for relieving pain and reducing inflammation. The icy cold temperature numbs the area to reduce pain, slows down other cell functions and bleeding which in turn prevents bruising and swelling from the waste and fluid build-up, helping to minimize further tissue damage and scar tissue formation.
If you want to numb pain fast and most efficiently, invest in a gel pack and have it frozen and ready inside your freezer. If you are desperate and are nowhere near a frozen gel pack, grab some frozen peas and mold the package with maximum contact to your skin.
Fire It Up
Heat is best used for stiffness of joints, to relieve muscle spasm and chronic pain, such as chronic neck or back pain, it helps increase blood flow during the repair stage of an injury. Greater blood flow means more oxygen and nutrients to your cells along with the removal of waste materials.
With heat, muscles relax and allow you to move freely, allowing for increased flexibility and facilitating proper stretching of damaged tissue. Remember to always use a barrier between the heat and your skin, such as a cloth or towel to prevent burns. Heat can be applied with a thermal gel pack or simply a small warm wet hand towel.
When To Use Ice and Heat
When one or more of your muscles go into spasm, your body reacts to this “injury” by sending an increase of white blood cells to the site. These extra white blood cells can interfere with the red blood cells’ routine tasks of carrying oxygen and nutrients to the injured area. Waste products also stagnate and accumulate in the affected tissue.
A lack of oxygen to the site can also stimulate a “pain-spasm cycle” where the nerves send “pain” signals to your brain. In response, your brain contracts the muscles near the injury to close off blood supply and prevents swelling. So starts the vicious cycle that can lead to more spasms and more pain. Even worse, unless the cycle is broken, it can continue for years.
Best of Both
One of the best and easiest ways to break this cycle is to alternate ice and heat. Both ice and heat help shut down the nerves that fire the pain signals. When the pain messages can’t reach the brain, muscles don’t contract and constrict blood flow to the injured area. Applying ice and heat consistently for a sufficient period of time can help break the pain-spasm cycle.
Note of Caution
If heat is inappropriately utilized during the inflammatory phase of healing, an increase in blood flow to the already swollen, injured area often results in an increase of pain. A rule of thumb should be as long as the pain is present, ice is usually safer and more effective.
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Dr. Connor McCormick