Every ache and pain is different. Some causes of chronic pain can be symptoms of an underlying issue, while others can be an unpleasant side effect of an existing condition. Because of this, it’s no surprise that they require different treatments. For many, going straight to the doctor or resorting to over-the-counter medications are usually the first options when dealing with pain. However, another option may be applying a hot or cold compress to the affected area. But, when should you use heat or ice for chronic pain? Furthermore, which type of compress should be used for different types of pain? In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about heat or ice for chronic pain. Let’s first start by understanding the difference between the two.
Is There a Difference Between Heat or Ice for Chronic Pain?
When you think about treating chronic pain, chances are you probably think of applying an ice pack to the area where you’re experiencing discomfort. While this isn’t always wrong, a hot compress can be equally effective at treating certain types of pain, where ice may not be recommended. But, what exactly is the difference between the two?
Using heat or ice for chronic pain depends on the type of pain you’re experiencing. While both heat and ice can soothe pain, they do so in different ways. Heat increases blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen in the affected area, and in doing so, works to relax tight muscles.
Ice, on the other hand, reduces pain by decreasing swelling and inflammation. This helps quell muscle spasms and reduces circulation to the affected area. While reducing circulation may sound like a bad thing, it can actually help, as less circulation means your blood vessels shrink, which can lessen swelling and bleeding.
Since heat and ice can be used to achieve different effects on chronic pain, they are typically used to treat different types of pain. Let’s next explore when you should use heat or ice for chronic pain, and how you should do so.
Heat or Ice for Joint Pain and Inflammation?
One of the most common types of chronic pain is joint pain, which is usually caused by inflammation. Joint pain is caused by a variety of different conditions, the most common being arthritis and certain types of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
Joint pain and chronic inflammation can make your body feel stiff, and make your joints feel as though they are burning. Oftentimes, this type of pain is caused by intense physical activity, stress, and even the weather.
When and how to use heat or ice for this type of chronic pain depends on the cause of the pain, and ultimately, what works best for you.
An example of this may include gout, a very common type of arthritis that can cause severe pain in the joints. Gout responds well to hot compresses, as it can help reduce stiffness and relax the surrounding muscles. On the other hand, osteoarthritis, a degenerative type of arthritis, responds better to ice, as it can help reduce pain and swelling.
If you’re living with chronic joint pain or inflammation, once you’ve identified the underlying cause of your discomfort, you can talk with your doctor to help determine whether heat or ice for chronic pain is right for you.
What to Use for Muscle Pain
Muscle pain is another common type of chronic pain that can affect anyone. This type of pain can affect multiple sections of the body at any given time and can be caused by anything from injuries to overuse.
One of the most common types of muscle pain is back pain. Muscular back pain is usually the result of overworked or strained muscles in the back. This can happen as a result of exercise at the gym, or by improperly lifting something heavy at work.
For most people, muscle pain is temporary, and is usually the result of an injury or identifiable cause. In these instances, this type of chronic pain can be treated with a cold compress for no more than 15 minutes a few times a week.
If the muscle pain is chronic, meaning it lasts longer than six months, you may find that heat works best. In some cases, you may find that alternating between hot and cold yields the best results.
What About Nerve Pain?
Nerve pain is another common type of chronic pain that many people use hot and cold compresses to treat. But, which is best?
Nerve pain can be caused by several different conditions, ailments, or injuries, and can vary widely in intensity and frequency. For example, a person with sciatica, a common nerve condition in the lower back, may describe their pain as radiating from their back down their legs. On the other hand, someone with diabetes may experience more localized nerve pain in their legs and feet.
Pain caused by conditions like sciatica, where the spinal nerve is compressed, responds well to ice, as cold can help calm inflammation and reduce pain in the muscles. Doctors suggest using cold compresses when the pain is still intense or ongoing, and to move to heat when it has subsided. Heat can help increases blood flow and help your tissues heal faster.
Bottom Line: When to Use Heat or Ice for Chronic Pain
So, what’s the answer? When should you use heat or ice for chronic pain? While using a cold compress may, on paper, be better for certain types of pain such as muscle or joint pain, you should ultimately use what works best for you.
You know your pain better than anyone else, and you know what works best for your specific condition. If you find that a warm compress gives you relief from your arthritis-related pain, then stick with that. If you use a cold compress for your nerve pain and find that it helps, continue with that route.
Regardless of the type of pain you’re experiencing, using heat or ice can both be great ways to find relief. As always, if you find yourself at a point where your pain is intolerable or interfering with your everyday activities, talk with your doctor about what other options are available.
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