This is a question we get asked a lot! Here’s a few guidelines and advice we give out to our patients.
The use of heat and ice are two common treatments used for pain relief of sprains, muscle and joint pain. Both are advantageous as they are easily accessible, easy to apply and inexpensive. Which you should use and when depends on whether the pain/injury is a acute (new) one or a ongoing problem.
In general a acute injury will result in inflammation and possibly swelling (like a sprained ankle). Applying ice will cause vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels) and decreased blood flow to the area. This will help decrease the pain and the swelling of the area. Applying ice does not stop the inflammatory response (as this is necessary to the healing process) but it helps ease the pain. It is recommended that ice is applied every couple of hours for the first 24/48 hrs. Wrap ice in a towel and apply to the area for approximately 20 minutes (check skin regularly) we advise this should be used together with rest, compression, elevation and gentle movement.
Heat in general is used more for ongoing aches and pains including nightly muscle aches. Heat does the opposite of ice in as much as it causes vasodilation (opening up) of the blood vessels. This helps increase blood flow and in turn increase oxygen and nutrients, relax muscle spasm and decrease pain. Application should be limited to 20 minutes and skin checked regularly (again wrap well before applying to skin).
With both heat and ice never apply to open wounds, infection, broken skin, areas of poor circulation or and decreased sensation.
Remember if in any doubt seek professional advice.