Ice and heat applications are one of the most inexpensive, easy and effective home care modalities you can employ, and yet still one of the most misunderstood.
My goal with this article is to make it very clear and simple for you. Now keep in mind there are always those exceptions to the rule, but 90 % of the time, what I am about to tell you will work.
Let’s start with ice. Ice is for acute inflammation and chronic overuse injuries that are inflamed. If you have swelling, redness, pain, and or bruising following an injury or repetitive activity, you are probably suffering from the affects of acute inflammation. Ice will help by constricting blood vessels, lessening the amount of bleeding into the injured area, slowing metabolic processes and scar tissue formation, and blocking pain receptors.
It is important to ice within 36 hours after injury (otherwise the inflammatory process is well under way, and ice won’t do much except temporarily decrease pain), and to ice often for up to 72 hours post injury. Apply ice either by massaging an ice cup or cube on and around the area, or applying an ice pack. Duration should be at least 10 minutes, or until the area feels numb, whichever comes first! Then elevate the area if possible, and reapply when the pain returns.
Heat is NOT for inflammation. Heating inflamed tissues will increase inflammation, making the area more painful and swollen – not the desired outcome.
Heat is for trigger points and tired achy muscles. Heat application will help ease the pain of trigger points, increase overall relaxation, aid circulation, and ease joint stiffness. If you are feeling achy, but have no accompanying swelling or redness, hop into the bath, sauna or pop a heating pad on the area. Follow up with some stretching or mobilizing, and a bit of self-massage. Fast, cheap, easy pain relief!
Heat and cold applications can be combined in a process known as contrast bathing for injured tissues that are no longer acutely inflamed, but still healing. To contrast you alternate between heat application and cold application. With elbow tendonitis, for example, you can fill double sinks (or two containers big enough to immerse your forearms in) with water – one warm/hot and one cold. The warmer and colder each is the better, just use common sense not to injure yourself with extremes. Place your arms into the hot for 3 minutes, and then remove and dunk them into the cold for 30 seconds. Repeat this process 3 times (if you have the time), ending in cold.
You can also do this with hot and cold packs on the injured area, or in the shower with a removable showerhead. Contrasting helps speed recovery time, and feels great!
So to recap – Ice is for acute inflammation – swollen, red, tender injuries.
Heat is for muscle aches and trigger point pain, but NOT inflammation.
Contrasting with both ice and heat is for aiding the healing process in tissues that are injured but no longer acutely inflamed.