Ice or Heat? When you suffer with an injury or are in need of pain relief this question arises quite frequently. Most often we reach for the solution that our mothers gave us or what our best friend who also suffered with the same the injury or pain did.
While some say ice is better for your pain, others claim that heat will do the trick. But how can you tell which is more appropriate for the type of injury you’ve sustained or pain you are feeling? And what is the best way to apply ice or heat?
With many differing and conflicting opinions, I am going to help clarify what is the most effective way to apply ice and/or heat to help you return to the best of health.
Natural Pain Relief Is Best
Safe and effective pain relief is found in ice and heat. When applied correctly, ice and heat offer you natural and effective pain relief. The other benefit is, when you apply an ice or heat pack to an area, you are placing it precisely on the affected area. Pain medication, on the other hand, has to be swallowed, digested and assimilated, affecting your entire body. Therefore, medication can leave a trail of potential side-effects. Remember, it is always better to act as Mother Nature intended.
With an acute or new injury, ice is very effective for relieving pain and reducing inflammation. The icy cold temperature numbs the area to reduce pain, slows down other cell functions and bleeding which in turn prevents bruising and swelling from the waste and fluid build-up, helping to minimize further tissue damage and scar tissue formation.
If you want to numb pain fast and most effectively, invest in a gel pack and have it frozen and ready inside your freezer. If you are desperate and are nowhere near a frozen gel pack, grab some frozen peas and mould the pack with maximum contact to your skin.
Heat Is Sweet
Heat is best used for stiffness of joints, to relieve muscle spasm and chronic pain, such as chronic neck or back pain, it helps increase blood flow during the repair stage of an injury. Greater blood flow means more oxygen and nutrients to your cells along with the removal of waste materials.
With heat, muscles relax and allow you to move freely, allowing for increased flexibility and facilitating proper stretching of damaged tissue. Remember to always use a barrier between the heat and your skin, such as a cloth or towel to prevent burns. Heat can be applied with a thermal gel pack or simply a small warm wet hand towel.
When To Apply Heat and Ice
When one or more of your muscles go into spasm, your body reacts to this “injury” by sending more white blood cells to the site. These extra white blood cells can interfere with the red blood cells’ routine tasks of carrying oxygen and nutrients to the injured area. Waste products stagnate and accumulate in the affected tissue. A lack of oxygen to the site can also stimulate a “pain-spasm cycle” where the nerves send “pain” signals to your brain. In response, your brain contracts the muscles near the injury to close off blood supply and prevents swelling. So starts a vicious cycle that can lead to more spasms and more pain. Even worse, unless the cycle is broken, it can continue for years.
One of the best and easiest ways to break this cycle is to alternate ice and heat. Both ice and heat help shut down the nerves that fire the pain signals. When the pain messages can’t reach the brain, muscles don’t contract and constrict blood flow to the injured area. Applying ice and heat consistently for a sufficient period of time can help break the pain-spasm cycle.
Quick Caution Note
If heat is inappropriately utilized during the inflammatory phase of healing, an increase in blood flow to the already swollen, injured area often results in an increase of pain. As long as pain is present, ice is usually safer and more effective.
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For Your Health,
Dr. Joseph Gambardella, Dr. Todd Brown and Dr. Benjamin Erb