Did you just roll your ankle while playing your favorite sport?
Has the back pain been bothering you for a while now?
Or did your knee just suffer a bang because of that fall?
One of the methods here may just be the answer of getting relief from that pain and treating it the drug free way.
Choosing Ice or Heat?
A question that bothers almost everyone when they realize that the pain they are suffering from, needs a slayer. Of course, you can pop a pill and get rid of it in a few minutes, but will popping a pill really help you in the long run? Will it speed up the healing process?
No, it would not.
Then what would?
Ice or Heat.
Ice and Heat are both inexpensive forms of treatment, which can be readily carried out at home. That’s right, no medical supervision needed. If used properly, both these treatments can offer great advantages. But choosing one of them is a difficult decision. People simply don’t know what is suitable for which situation.
However, by the end of this piece, you would have a fair understanding of the difference between Ice and Heat therapies.
The decision to ICE or HEAT is usually made on two factors:
- time after injury (Is your injury in acute or chronic phase?)
- reason for use (For swelled-up inflammation injuries or stiffness of joints?)
(There are a couple of exceptions as well which will be explained later in this post.)
Ice Treatment (Cryotherapy)
If you are a sports fan, you would have seen a physiotherapist running to the injured football player with an ice pack.
Why did he take the ice pack and not a heating pad?
That’s because ice is supposed to be used as an immediate treatment to numbing pains and swelling, for e.g., sprains, injured muscles and strains.
When the injury is fresh, there is no scar visible on the surface, but the tissues of the injured area has started undergoing inflammation. The area become red, swollen and hot. Ice treatment is a way to control this inflammation and provide immediate relief from the pain.
When do we use ice treatment?
Immediately after an injury.
When not to Ice your injury?
During muscle pain.
Muscle pain is often characterized by muscle spasms which are painful, and people commonly mistake these spasms for an injury suitable for ice treatment, when instead they should go for heat treating it.
What happens when you apply ice on muscle injury?
Ice will aggravate these spasms and make the condition worse. The muscle would start contracting harder. Thus, more pain and burning sensation. This is a common sight when people try to treat lower back pain or neck pain with an ice pack. 
Using ice therapy the RIGHT way
- Never apply an ice pack for more than 20 minutes
- Always wrap it in a small cotton towel before applying.
- Never use it case of a wound.
- Looks for signs of inflammation before using the ice pack, like redness, swelling, soreness, etc.
Now let’s have look at the other method of treatment, Heat.
Heat Treatment (Thermotherapy)
Heat treatment is highly effective where ice treatment fails, i.e., it is for muscle pain like a lower back pain which has been bothering you for weeks now.
When do we use heat treatment?
During stiffening pains, joint injuries and spasms – places where making the muscles more pliable would help in increasing the mobility.
When not to use heat?
In case of a fresh tissue injury.
What would heat do in such a case?
It will increase the swelling (fluid accumulation) and as a result the pain.
I remember an incident from my childhood when my father injured his knee at home while he was doing some minor repairs. I was very young and had no idea what to do. My mother on the other hand, seemed to have the situation under control and immediately brought out a heating pad.
Was it going to help? You probably know the answer by now.
In just a few minutes after applying the heating pad, the knee started swelling up. In no time, the knee had swollen three times over and the pain had aggravated to intolerable levels. We had to rush my father to a doctor in order to prevent any further damage.
The learning at that time was fairly clear for me. Never ever use heat on freshly inflicted injuries. Heat is just going to make the pain and swelling worse.
Using heat therapy the RIGHT way
- Heat therapy should be used for a maximum of 20 minutes.
- Never use it in case of swelling. (Although, it would be a great idea to apply ice first, and heat later)
- Never use heat on open wounds or stitches.
- Never lie down on a heating pad. The relief may make you fall asleep and you may end up burning your skin.
Injured muscles: Ice or heat?
I said that ice is helpful when you have injured a tissue and heat is helpful when you have muscle pain. But what to do when you have injured a muscle? Should you ice it, or heat it?
In that case, you first need to know whether it is truly an injury (tear) or a spasm (cramp). The difference is better understood by analyzing the way the pain started. Deep stretching causes muscle tear, while holding a position for long, or curling up a muscle gives way to spasms.
So, if it is a muscle scar, ice is the solution. It would control the inflammation and bring immediate relief from pain. In case of a muscle spasm, heat is the answer. Heat relaxes the muscle and prevents it from spasming any further.
Understanding the cause of an injury is the key here. Once you do that, you’ll know which pack to pick – Ice or Heat. That’s all for now. You can submit your queries and comments below. I’ll be happy to answer them anytime.
As for your further enlightenment on this topic, read “Finding Relief from Pain through Heating Pads“.
References  Garra G, Singer AJ, Leno R, Taira BR, Gupta N, Mathaikutty B, & Thode HJ (2010). Heat or cold packs for neck and back strain: a randomized controlled trial of efficacy. Academic emergency medicine : official journal of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, 17 (5), 484-9 PMID: 20536800. ^Back to Top^ French SD, Cameron M, Walker BF, Reggars JW, & Esterman AJ (2006). A Cochrane review of superficial heat or cold for low back pain. Spine, 31 (9), 998-1006 PMID: 16641776. ^Back to Top^  Cochrane, D. (2004). Alternating hot and cold water immersion for athlete recovery: a review Physical Therapy in Sport, 5 (1), 26-32 DOI: 10.1016/j.ptsp.2003.10.002. ^Back to Top^
Last Update: 15th July 2014
Next Update on : 15th Sept 2014