The application of ice or heat to injuries or sites of pain are extremely common and widely used techniques that can aid in the recovery process. They are a safe, effective and cheap way to relieve pain or swelling. Despite this, however, there is often a lot of confusion as to which modality should be used when.

Ice should be used primarily in the event of an acute injury where there is some degree of swelling involved. It can limit the extent of inflammation in the surrounding area of an acute injury and it is thought to slow down the conduction of pain messages in the nerves, relieving pain in the short-term and making the recovery process more endurable.

Heat is generally used for more chronic pain conditions and sore, stiff muscles. The application of heat can soothe the muscle, relieve pain and reduce spasms. Heat can also dilate the blood vessels in the area, encouraging blood flow and stimulating the healing process. This increase blood flow to the affected area can also deliver nutrients to damaged joints and muscles.

Individuals suffering with chronic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis often alternate between both ice and heat, or some people prefer one or the other.

There are lots of different types of cool packs and heat packs on the market but a simple option is to use a hot water bottle or a packet of frozen peas. With regard to application, you should never apply heating or cooling devices directly to the skin. Both ice and heat can burn the skin, so you should always use a towel to cover the area and check your skin regularly for any changes and signs of burning. Use a damp towel when applying ice as it is more effective. Both heat and ice can be applied several times throughout the day and should be applied for no more than 10-15mins at a time.

Heat or ice application should not cause pain so if  either of the methods feel painful, you should stop immediately. If you have reduced sensation, numbness or circulatory problems you should not use the method unless you have discussed it with a healthcare professional.   

By Andrea Furlong.

Book a Physiotherapy Appointment Online with Andrea