Heat and ice can be a great cost-friendly and medication-free tool to use when you’re in pain, but it can be difficult to know when you should use one versus the other.
Heat is a vasodilator which opens up your blood vessels and increases blood flow to the area it is applied to. It’s typically good to use for stiff or arthritic joints, muscle soreness, and spasms, assisting in healing damaged tissues, and improving flexibility.
Ice is a vasoconstrictor, which reduces blood flow to the area applied. Ice is typically good to use to reduce swelling, temporary pain relief, acute flare-ups, or post-op surgeries.
When you are applying heat to an area, your body will increase the blood flow by opening up the blood vessels. By opening up the blood vessels and increase in platelets, white blood cells, oxygen, and essential healing nutrients are allowed into the area. This can assist in healing damaged tissues by supplying the tissues with extra nutrients that are necessary to heal efficiently.
Therapeutic exercise is a great example of this. When you exercise you can create tiny microtears in the muscle which is a normal part of a workout. Applying heat to sore muscles can decrease muscle soreness and speed up healing time.
Arthritic joints that often feel stiff and sore may benefit from applying gentle heat. When adding heat to the joint it can relax the structures around it, which allows increased motion and even distribution of the synovial fluid within the joint.
In addition to this heat can be a great tool to use to reduce muscle spasms and cramps by allowing the muscle to be more easily stretched and relaxed. Stretching a warm muscle often yields better results than stretching muscles that are cold.
Let’s now talk about the benefits of applying ice and when to use it. Applying ice or a cold compress to an area on the body causes the blood vessels to vasoconstrict, meaning that they will get smaller. This may be indicated after an injury or surgery to reduce swelling and inflammation in the area.
Ice can be an effective temporary method to reduce pain as well by slowing the pain signals to your brain and causing a short period of numbness to the area. Ice or cold compress is a great method to use for acute flare-ups as well. Ice baths can be beneficial for athletes post-workout to reduce the amount of lactic acid build-up within the muscles as well.
For both heat and ice, it is important that you use it for 15-20 minutes at a time and check every few minutes to avoid burns or damage to the skin when using either one. It is normal for the area to be red after using either heat or ice, and should return back to normal in a few minutes depending on the person.
Ice and heat both have great benefits and can be an effective way to reduce pain. Overall some common indications to use ice would be for acute conditions, injuries, or swelling and inflammation. Heat is indicated more commonly for more chronic conditions, aiding in the healing process, and decreasing pain from muscle spasms.
If you have any questions on whether you should be using heat or ice for your specific condition, feel free to contact our office located in Racine, Wisconsin, and we’d be more than happy to discuss what we can do for you.
Abby Spanske, Physical Therapist Assistant