When ice and heat work equally
Sometimes, a person can use both heat and ice to soothe aches and pains. Chronic conditions such as arthritis, ongoing back or neck pain, and even fibromyalgia can be treated by alternating between ice packs and heat compresses. Although not a long-term solution for controlling pain, a little heat or cold can effectively soothe muscles, alleviate pain, and ease stiffness in joints such as the knees or fingers. For best results, limit hot and cold treatments to 15-20 minutes per session, and repeat as often as needed.
When to avoid heat
Although a warm compress can be incredibly effective in many scenarios, in some situations reaching for heat should be avoided. Specifically, in the 48 hours immediately following an injury, heat should not be the first step in pain management. Heat brings blood to the surface, which can be a problem for a fresh injury. However, a caveat exists. If sore muscles are the only issue, people can use heat right away, as the influx of blood to the site can help eliminate lactic acid buildup, which contributes to pain.
When to consider ice therapy
Cold applications like ice packs can be incredibly therapeutic for new injuries. An ice pack or cold compress can effectively numb the injured area to blunt pain and lower swelling and inflammation. Additionally, ice therapy can help to reduce bleeding, which can aid in recovery. However, ice should never be applied directly to the skin without a barrier to prevent irritation and even potential burning, depending on the type of compress used.
Hold the ice
For muscle stiffness or sore joints, ice may not be as helpful as a person thinks. Additionally, individuals with sensory disorders may want to skip the ice pack. Specifically, because cold therapy works as a numbing agent, people with reduced sensory perception may not realize how badly damaging an injury may be. This directive is also critical for diabetics to follow due to the known risk of nerve damage.
The best rule of thumb is to not treat an acute injury with heat because of the risk of increased inflammation. Doing so may delay recovery and healing. Instead, opt for cold therapy to minimize inflammation and gently numb the injury site while reducing the total amount of bruising that might occur. Once an injury passes the acute 6-week mark, heat therapy is considered safe to use. Don’t hesitate to speak to a physician to understand best practices and pain management recommendations when in doubt.