One of the most common questions I get asked when treating a patient is “should I use heat or ice on my injury?”
Let’s start by saying both can be great self-treatment options as they are generally safe, cheap and can be effective (we’ll get into how effective a bit later). There are times when it is better to use one rather than the other.
Cold packs or ice is normally best used on a new injury (ankle sprains, muscle strains, etc). Cold aims to reduce the effects of acute inflammation and reduce the associated pain. This can be a bit of a controversial point as inflammation is how the body begins its healing process, so some people will say that icing is counterproductive. While this may be true, icing an injury will never be enough to stop the inflammatory process but can help to reduce the swelling and pain to make the injured person more comfortable.
Heat is best used to help relieve muscle tension or tenderness (chronic low back pain, stress tension, headaches). It is best to avoid heat in acute injuries such as the ones above as it promotes inflammation and can cause more swelling, pain and bleeding in the affected region.
As mentioned above both heat and ice are not the most effective treatment available. A study showed the temperature change in the underlying tissues was 3.7 degrees at 1cm and only .78 degrees at 3cm (1). This means that heat/cold therapy is much more effective in areas where there isn’t thick layers of muscle and fat e.g. over joints, hands and feet.
Both heat and ice are easy, safe, cheap and mildly effective ways to help reduce pain when used in the right way. If you’re ever unsure, it is best to go with whatever you feel most comfortable with. There is no point enduring an ice pack on a cold day if you don’t want to!
Blog by Damian Berenato, Osteopath at McKinnon Osteopathy.
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- Draper, D., Castel, J. and Castel, D. (1995). Rate of Temperature Increase in Human Muscle During 1 MHz and 3 MHz Continuous Ultrasound. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 22(4), pp.142-150.