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Should I use ice or my heat packs for pain relief?

ice and heat correct size

Ice or Heat?

It’s a commonly asked question we hear every day.

The application of either heat or ice can be an extremely simple and effective way of treating pain in a number of different conditions and injuries. Both are easily accessible and cheaply available. The problem is knowing what situations calls for heat, and which calls for ice.

Let’s try to simply explain when each treatment is best utilised.

Ice Therapy

ice therapyIce therapy is also known as cryotherapy. It works by reducing blood flow to a particular area, thereby reducing the inflammation, bleeding and swelling that causes pain.

It can also assist in relieving pain by temporarily reducing nerve activity in the area.

Wrap the ice pack in a small towel and apply to the affected area. Take care never to apply a frozen item directly to the skin as it may cause damage to the skin and tissues. Alternatively, you can immerse the affected area in an ice bath. Use cold therapy for short periods of time, around 10 to 15 minutes. Ice should be used for:

  • First 48-72 hours post injury (acute-phase) to help reduce tissue injury and inflammation
  • Chronic or degenerative injuries, which become acutely painful and aggravated with pain being more than a dull ache

Heat Therapy

Heat therapyHeat therapy works by improving circulation and blood flow to a particular area due to increased temperature. Increasing the temperature of the painful area even slightly can soothe discomfort and increase muscle flexibility. Heat therapy can relax muscles and heal damaged tissue. Heat needs to be applied for longer periods than ice, and for a minimum of 15-20 minutes to help relieve minor stiffness or tension. Heat should be used for:

  • After first 72 hours (post-acute phase) to promote blood flow and healing of the injury
  • Longer-term chronic or degenerative type injuries
  • Muscle pain or stiffness

In Summary

As a general rule, use ice for acute injuries or pain. Heat is better suited for more chronic injury, stiffness, aching muscles and joints.

Care should always be used when utilizing these therapies to avoid skin, nerve or tissue damage. If you suffer from any of the following always consult a medical professional for advice on treatment:

  • diabetes
  • dermatitis
  • vascular diseases
  • deep vein thrombosis
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Poor circulation/sensation
  • heart disease or hypertension
  • Pregnancy
  • Infection

If you have any questions our friendly staff are always available to discuss any concerns you may have. Alternatively book an appointment with one of our Physios to help you get your pain under control.