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The Use of Ice vs. Heat as a Therapeutic Modality

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ice packs, ice therapy, ice to reduce inflammation

Ever pull a muscle, get hit playing a sport or twist an ankle? It is rare to find someone who hasn’t experienced one of these injuries. So what do you do when you have an injury and you start to experience pain? The most natural pain reliever that anyone can use without is ice and heat. However, people don’t know which one to use and when to use it. Most people have an adverse reaction to ice because they don’t like the cold feeling, however if you always use heat you could actually injure yourself more than you already are.

Ice stops swelling or inflammation within the muscle tissue. When you have an injury, the body has a natural anti-inflammatory response. Acute inflammation is when the body sends white blood cells to the injured part of the body to protect the muscles, organs and bones as well as to start the healing process. Some key signs of inflammation are redness, swelling, pain, loss of function and increased heat. To decrease these symptoms, use ice for 15-20 minutes. The ice reduces the swelling, which in turn stops the pain.

When using ice make sure to stay within the time frame. Ice decreases the blood pressure and blood flow to the area which means overtime less oxygen is flowing to that part of the body. Once removed the blood flow returns bringing newer white and red blood cells to the injured area to continue with the healing process. If you use heat in the circumstance where there is already swelling, you will cause yourself more pain. The heat will actually increase the swelling, which will continue to cause pain.

Moist heat is used for general muscle pain, tightness and stiffness. Heat will relax tight muscles allowing them to elongate and loosen. When we use our muscles they lengthen and shorten. When you stress the muscle they tighten up and stay taunt, which causes them to pull on the vertebrae. Most people prefer heat because of the warmth. Heat brings increased blood flow to the area to heal and relax muscles. Forms of heat include heat packs, Jacuzzi, or a hot shower.

If you do not know what to use, it’s best to use both ice and heat in conjunction. The use of ice and heat together is standard practice for alternative medicine.  If you don’t know if an area has swelling you’re better off starting with ice to reduce the chance of the possibility of inflammation. Always start with ice for 15-20 minutes to reduce any swelling. Then use heat right afterward for another 15-20 minutes.  Then leave everything off of the area for another 15-20 minutes. You can use this cycle as many times as you need to reduce any symptoms of pain.

Although heat and ice therapy are important therapies to use during muscle recovery it is important to understand that there are usually further underlying issues that heat and ice cannot heal. Heat and ice should be used in conjunction with other alternative modalities such as massage therapy, electric muscle stimulation, ultrasound, chiropractic care, spinal decompression and physical therapy. However, heat and ice should be used at the first sign of any pain symptoms to reduce your symptomology.