Every week I am asked by patients “should I use ice or heat on an injury?”. The answer, of course, is that it depends on the injury. Here I’ll outline for you the general principles for ice and heat.
Ice is best used on an acute injury. An acute injury is a sudden, very painful injury in its early stages. These injuries can create a great deal of inflammation. Ice is used to manage the inflammation and decrease pain. Ankle sprains and acute low back pain are great examples of injuries that can benefit from ice.
The best way to ice an injury is to wrap a cold pack in a wet cloth and place it over the site of pain. Most people ice incorrectly; they chuck the ice on for 20 minutes, get bored and put it away. The most effective way to ice an injury is intermittently. Place the ice on the injury for 10 minutes and take it off for 10 minutes, repeated 7 times. Although seven times may sound excessive, remember that the injury is inflamed and actually generating heat. It’s like placing an ice pack on the outside of an oven to cool down the roast chicken inside. The injured structures are also very deep and so icing once or twice will just give you cold skin. Ice intermittently for 10 minutes at a time, seven times. And don’t forget to put the ice pack back in the freezer each time to keep it cold.
As ice is best for an acute injury, heat is best for chronic tightness. A chronic problem develops slowly and is present for over 6 weeks. There should be no inflammation and little or no pain. Heat is used to promote blood flow and relax chronic tight muscles and joints. The protocol for heating an area is simpler than icing. Just place a heat pack over the area of stiffness for 10 to 20 minutes and you should start to notice some therapeutic benefit.
So there you are – an age old question answered! Of course, any injury or pain, new or old, should be assessed by your healthcare professional.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact me via e-mail or the website contact form 🙂