Ice and Heat Therapy: When to Use Them

We have used heat and cold therapy for years. When used correctly, they can treat swelling, pain, injury, inflammation, tension, and soreness. Clinical trials have shown this to be true. [1] Ice and heat therapy are easy therapies to use on yourself, and there is not much which can go wrong, though there are certain steps which you can take to limit any further injury. 

Ice Therapy

  • Ice therapy slows your circulation and metabolism, treats inflammation, and numbs the area it is applied to. This can help to decrease pain, calm swelling and inflammation, and stop muscle cramps and spasms. [2]
  • Ice therapy is best used straight after physical activity.
  • If ice therapy is used for an extremely long time, there is a chance of frostbite and skin damage.
  • When using ice therapy, you might think about ice packs or ice baths.

When Not to Use Ice

  • Do not use before physical activity as it will tighten your muscles.
  • If you feel numbness, then you will not feel if the ice is damaging your skin.
  • Ice slows circulation, so should not be used if you have bad circulation or any kind of vascular disease.
  • Ice should not be used on an open wound. The skin under your top layer is more easily harmed by extreme temperatures.
  • Do not use ice if you have sensitive skin which would be irritated.

How Long to Use Ice?

  • Use 2-3 times a day as a minimum.
  • 20 minutes per session.
  • Use immediately after an injury to treat pain, inflammation, swelling, and spasms. Use for 48 hours. If pain or swelling persists, we advise you to see a doctor.

Applying Ice

1. Ice packs

Useful for targeting an area of pain or swelling. Can be used to treat large areas or small areas.

Options

  • Place ice cubes or crushed ice in a sealable plastic bag. Place directly on the area needing treatment. Hold on the affected area. You can cover the bag with a thin cloth if the ice bag is too cold.
  • Use a bag of frozen fruits or vegetables. Peas work well as they can move around an area they are applied to. Cover in cloth if needed.
  • Use a store-bought ice pack. Do not use the blue freezer packs. They are extremely cold, and they will damage your skin.

Method

Place on the affected area. Hold there or use an elastic/string to hold the ice pack in place. Use for 20 minutes.

Ice packs therapy

2. Ice bath

Great for joints or whole-body recovery. Part of you can be submerged, your entire body, or somewhere in between.

How To

  • Fill a bucket or a bathtub with a mixture of ice and water.

Method

Place the affected area (or your whole body) in the ice bath. Use the ice bath for 20 minutes.

Heat Therapy

  • Heat therapy improves your circulation, increases your metabolism, treats pain, lessens inflammation and calms stressed muscles. Heat is great for loosening stiff muscles before physical activity. Heat can take away the stress and tension from your body. [3]
  • Heat therapy can increase inflammation and swelling if used on a fresh injury. It can also cause burns if the heat is too high or if it is used for too long.
  • When you think about heat therapy, you might think of electric heating pads, homemade heat packs, and hot baths.
Heat therapy

Types of Heat Therapy

  • Dry heat: great for treatment but can draw moisture from the skin and leave you feeling dehydrated. Less mess and easier to use. Think electric heating pads or saunas.
  • Moist heat: keeps the skin moist and gives deep penetration of heat into muscles and skin. Can be more of a nuisance but gives better pain relief. Think hot baths or hot towels.

If you have a specific injury and need to choose between dry heat and moist heat, you can go for either. They will both work, it depends on your personal preference.

Options

  • Fill a hot water bottle and take it to bed.
  • Use an electric heating pad at home or your office.
  • Use a heated gel pack when you are on the go. In an airplane or your car. Some gel packs provide dry heat, and other provide moist heat.
  • Use a heat wrap when you want the therapy to be streamlined with your clothing.
  • A bath, hot tub, or sauna will provide heat therapy while also relaxing you.
Heat therapy - Sauna

When not to use heat

  • Should be used for long-term recurring injuries. Do not use with a new injury or immediately after physical activity.
  • If you feel numbness, do not apply heat to the area. There is a danger of a burn.
  • Do not use on an open wound. The heat can damage the layers of skin.
  • Do not use if you have a fever or high temperature. Do not use when increasing your body temperature puts you at risk.

Check this video for more information about hot and cold therapy.

Here's a chart to help you decide which type of therapy is right for you:

Ice vs Heat Therapy - Infographics

Infographics by Cleveland Clinic

Natalie Bell
 

Natalie was introduced to massage therapy and manual therapy after health issues of her own. After she experienced the power of massage first hand, she decided to study the art of massage and formalized her knowledge in Arizona Western College.

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