Should I use Ice or Heat?
This is probably the most commonly asked question I get almost daily.
The answer to the 'ice or heat' question is the answer to most questions when it comes to dealing with the human body.
It depends on a couple factors but we can boil down pretty quickly and you can walk away with a 'rule of thumb' that will work for most scenarios.
Let's start with the WHY, WHAT and WHEN for both heat and ice.
Heat - The main reason to apply heat to an area is to increase blood flow and relax muscles. Applying heat to a muscle or joint will increase vasodilation which means the blood vessels that supply the area heated will open and allow more blood flow. This is important for tight and restricted muscles.
Here's a real world example of when to use heat...
You go out and shovel or do some yard work and your low back tightens up and is not feeling good. Heat in this example should help the overworked muscles to relax and also get some fresh blood flow to get them to loosen up.
Ice - The reason to ice is the opposite of heat. When ice is applied to an area it is going to cause vasoconstriction which means a narrowing or closing of the blood vessels thereby reducing blood flow and inflammation. The other benefit of icing is that the cooling of the tissues reduces the pain by numbing the nerves in the area. Ice is primarily reserved for injuries where inflammation is present.
Here's a real world example of when to use ice...
You go out and shovel or do some yard work and you pull a muscle and feel sharp, burning pain. Applying ice in this example will help to ease the pain and keep the inflammation from creating too much pressure on the injury.
This brings us to timing. How long do I ice or heat?
15-20 minutes is a good rule of thumb for both. You don't want to burn yourself or freeze yourself, so staying in the range of 15-20 minutes is usually safe.
Wait! What about doing both?
The times when I suggest people alternate between ice and heat is for a non acute, long standing problem. An example of alternating between ice and heat would be for an old hamstring injury that never healed properly and still acts up now and again.
Here's the bottom line rule of thumb that will work for most situations...
ICE - Use it on recent injuries where inflammation is present.
HEAT - Use it on tight muscles.
ALTERNATE - Use this method on an old injury that flares up here and there but is not severe.
Use both for 15-20 minutes and always give the area an hour or so before reapplying.
Hope this helps clear things up a bit.