One of the most commonly asked physical therapy questions is, “should I use heat or ice on my injury?” or “I didn’t know which one to use, what is the difference?”
Heat increases blood flow to the applied area and can help to relax and loosen tissues. Heat is often used with areas that have been bothersome for some time or before participating in activities. Ice causes the opposite effect; it decreases blood flow and is often used to minimize swelling, inflammation and irritation to an area. Ice tends to be used on new injuries and areas of swelling. Both heat and ice can have pain-relieving effects if used appropriately and sometimes it may be appropriate to use both. For instance, some individuals might heat up a chronic painful area before activity and ice it down after to decrease soreness.
Here are some common examples and suggestions as to what is best for certain types of injuries. A newly sprained ankle should be iced to decrease the swelling and inflammation. Ice is also commonly used after surgeries to minimize inflammation and can be used indefinitely for pain and inflammation. It is often recommended to ice injured areas for ten minutes twice a day. On the other hand, a tight back or stiff leg would most likely respond favorably to heat before physical activity. Heat will help to increase blood flow and loosen the muscles whereas, back pain, that is caused by nerve irritation or inflammation, would probably respond better to ice as ice will minimize swelling and inflammation.
Heat and ice should never be applied directly to the skin and should not be left on longer than 15-20 minutes at a time. Both can be applied throughout the day, but you should allow 45 – 60 minutes between applications. The skin should be monitored for excessive redness and pain, which could be signs of a burn or frost- bite.
Hopefully this information has helped so that next time you have an injury you know exactly how to assist in treating it. Do you have any specific examples that you would like guidance on?