Ice or heat? When and how to use them.

“Do I use ice or heat?”

This is one of the most common questions that I get asked in practice. I feel like there is a lot of confusion around what to use when. Below we discuss general rules on what to use when and how.

Please talk to your health provider before beginning any home treatments to make sure this is right for you and your circumstances.

Ice is typically used after an acute injury, for example, if we roll an ankle. Applying ice allows us to control the inflammation process by restricting blood flow and reducing pain signals which helps with pain and swelling.

There are many types of ice packs on the market, however, a bag of peas will do fine if that’s all you’ve got. Make sure that whatever you use is wrapped in a tea towel or hand towel. DO NOT apply directly to the skin.

As a general rule apply ice for 10 minutes, then remove for 10 minutes, and then repeat the process 3 times.

In the initial stages of an injury (first 72hrs) you can apply ice every few hours.

Heat can be very helpful for muscle spasms and in ‘cold’ injuries like arthritis. Anyone who has arthritis I’m sure will be able to tell you how much they ache in the cold. Heat works by increasing circulation and blood flow which helps to relax muscles and potentially aid in healing.

There are lots of heat packs on the market. If you don’t have one, then a hot shower will often do the job. Again, make sure that whatever you use is not too hot as you do not want to burn the skin.

Place heat pack or water stream onto the affected area for around 20mins. You can repeat as often as you feel is needed.

Heat and Ice Alternating

Sometimes your practitioner may suggest alternating heat and ice. This may be in the case of an injury or condition where there is also muscle spasm. Using heat and ice at the same time can be helpful for migraine headaches.

Apply ice as above for 10 minutes then heat pack for 10 minutes. Repeat 3 times.

For migraines putting your feet in hot(not too hot) water with a heat pack on the back of the neck can be very effective for relieving some of the pain associated.