Ever wondered if you should ice that sprain or use a heat pack instead? Treating pain with hot and cold can be very effective for a lot of different conditions and injuries; and it’s very accessible and affordable. The tricky part is knowing when to use heat and when to use cold. Sometimes a single treatment will even include both. As a general rule, use ICE for acute injuries or pain and for inflammation and swelling. Use HEAT for muscle pain or stiffness.
Ice therapy works as a vasoconstrictor. It causes the blood vessels to contract and reduce circulation, therefore decreasing pain and also reducing inflammation.
Heat therapy works in the opposite manner. It is a vasodilator. It increases circulation by expanding the blood vessels. This can reduce stiffness and relieve cramping or aching muscles. Heat also draws nutrients (via the blood) to the injured area, which aids in the healing process, and also helps the body’s cells get rid of waste products, such as lactic acid. Unlike ice, heat can make inflammation worse.
But what about using both together? This technique is known as contrast therapy, and involves alternating applications of heat and ice to relieve the pain associated with injury or overexertion. Arthritic patients, for example, may use heat for joint stiffness and cold for swelling and acute pain.
Heat and ice treatments are simple, affordable, and relatively low-risk. These therapies can be performed in your own home to provide rapid and natural pain relief for all sorts of aches and pains. To understand what treatment may be right for you, speak with your healthcare provider.