Clients often ask me whether they should use heat or ice on painful or injured areas of the body. Knowing which to use can be confusing, but it’s as simple as recognizing the kind of pain and discomfort you’re experiencing. Here are some easy rules to follow regarding whether or not you should use ice or heat to treat your pain.
Ice Treats Injuries
Ice reduces inflammation, redness and swelling, which can be the main source of pain after an injury. It can also ease the jarring pain of tension headaches. For example, I use ice on my head and neck when I feel a tension headache coming on and it really helps. Sometimes it alleviates the headache altogether! If any part of your body hurts and is swollen, use ice. Using heat to treat this kind of pain can actually make the pain worse by continuing the cycle of inflammation. Ice, on the other hand, constricts your blood vessels which helps to numb the pain, alleviate swelling and impede the formation of bruises.
Heat Relaxes Muscles, Chronic Pain and Stress
Occasionally I get a back ache after a long day of massage sessions. A heating pad or a warm bath usually takes care of the pain for me. This is because heat loosens your muscles. Applying heat to muscle spasms or trigger points (like the lower back, neck or shoulders) will increase the flow of blood to these areas, therefore relaxing the muscles or aching joints, and effectively helping to relieve any discomfort you might be experiencing.
When You Should Use Both
A good rule of thumb when experiencing pain is to numb it with ice and then apply heat once the inflammation has subsided to help ease the stiffness that has set in.
Ultimately, do what feels best for your body. Both ice and heat are cheap, at-home remedies you can use to manage immediate injuries and chronic pain, respectively. If I try heat and it offers no relief and just makes me sweat, then I switch to ice. If I try ice and it makes me shiver with no relief, then I’ll move to heat. Always listen to your body when applying either. If you’re experiencing swelling that only continues to get worse, go to a doctor immediately! This might be a sign that something is seriously wrong and needs to be examined and treated by a licensed physician.