Do I Heat or Do I Ice?
Treating pain with hot and cold can be extremely effective for a number of different conditions and injuries, and can be a great option when you don't have time to get into the clinic to see Dr. Davis right away. The tricky part is knowing what situations calls for hot, and which calls for cold. Dr. Davis says, sometimes a single treatment will even include both!
As a general rule of thumb, Dr. Davis suggests using ice for acute injuries or pain, along with inflammation and swelling and heat for muscle pain or stiffness. However, below, we will lay out the specific hows and whens to make things a bit easier.
How it works
Heat therapy works by improving circulation and blood flow to a particular area due to increased temperature. Increasing the temperature of the afflicted area even slightly can soothe discomfort and increase muscle flexibility. Heat therapy can relax and soothe muscles and heal damaged tissue. We want to aim for “warm” as the ideal temperature instead of “hot.”
When applying heat therapy, you can choose to use local, regional, or whole body treatment. Local heat therapy like a heating bad or warm water bottle is best for small areas of pain. Regional or full body treatment like saunas or hot tubs is best for widespread pain or stiffness.
Heat therapy is often most beneficial when used for a good amount of time, unlike cold therapy, which needs to be limited. Minor stiffness or tension can often be relieved with only 15 to 20 minutes of heat therapy.Moderate to severe pain can benefit from longer sessions of heat therapy like warm bath, lasting between 30 minutes and two hours. Listen to your body as good gauge of when it's had enough heat therapy.
When not to use
Do not use if the area in question is either bruised or swollen (or both), has an open wound or you have certain pre-existing conditions. As always, check with your healthcare provider.
How it works
Cold therapy is also known as cryotherapy. It works by reducing blood flow to a particular area, which can significantly reduce inflammation and swelling that causes pain, especially around a joint or a tendon. It can temporarily reduce nerve activity, which can also relieve pain.
For home treatment, apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel or ice bath to the affected area. Never apply a frozen item directly to the skin, as it can cause damage to the skin and tissues. Apply cold treatment as soon as possible after an injury.
Use cold therapy for short periods of time, several times a day. 10 to 15 minutes, no more than 20 minutes of cold therapy should be used at a time to prevent nerve, tissue, and skin damage. You can elevate the affected area for best results.
When Not To Use
People with sensory disorders that prevent them from feeling certain sensations should not use cold therapy at home because they may not be able to feel if damage is being done. This includes diabetes, which can result in nerve damage and lessened sensitivity. You should also avoid cold therapy on stiff muscles or joints.
Knowing when to use cold therapy and when to use heat therapy will significantly increase the effectiveness of the treatment. Some situations will require both. Arthritic patients, for example, may use heat for joint stiffness and cold for swelling and acute pain.
If either treatment makes the pain or discomfort worse, stop it immediately and if the treatment does not relieve your symptoms, you can make an appointment to see Dr. Davis to discuss a further plan of action and a possible underlying cause.
If you're still looking for some more tidbits and specifics, check out Dr. Davis' video on heat vs ice therapy below. It's also up on our Facebook page along with other educational videos!