When you were a child, pain relief was probably pretty simple when you got injured. A bump on the head or a scraped knee required two things – a little TLC from mom and an ice pack. As we get older, injuries get more complicated. In an effort to find relief for muscle pain, we either reach for ice or the good old heating pad, but do you know which works better or which one should come first?
Today we’re exploring the “chicken or egg” paradox of hot and cold therapy including when you should use ice, when you should use heat and how to effectively use both to ease muscle pain.
What treats what?
Treating muscle pain with ice or heat – or both – depends on what’s causing your pain. Think of ice as the tool you use to calm down an injury and ease the pain. Ice treatment is appropriate for acute muscle pain accompanied by inflammation or swelling. Ice constricts the blood vessels to help ease swelling, which decreases pain.
Heat therapy works best for chronic pain from injuries or medical conditions. Think of heat as the tool that aids your body’s natural ability to heal. When heat is applied to sore or painful muscles, your blood vessels expand, which increases circulation. The additional flow of blood to the affected area brings healing nutrients (naturally found in your blood) that help injuries. Plus, heat relaxes and calms tight muscles, so pain decreases.
Using a combination of ice and heat – also called contrasting therapy – can be effective for rehabilitating an injury that has resulted in tissue and muscle damage. According to Pain Science, “It’s extremely stimulating and is mostly used to facilitate injury recovery, with unknown efficacy.”
Muscle sprains or strains = Cold
According to Reader’s Digest, “Heat is usually a bad idea right after an injury, regardless of whether it is a sprain or strain.” That being said, these types of muscle injuries tend to swell, so using ice will ease inflammation. As you know, swelling is uncomfortable, so tackling the swelling right away can immediately ease the pain too.
Muscle stiffness and spasms = Heat
If you’re nursing an injury or experiencing stiffness in your muscles, heat is the best option for pain relief. Unlike an acute injury, pain due to overworked or injured muscles improves with heat therapy. According to Medical News Today, “Applying heat to an inflamed area will dilate the blood vessels, promote blood flow, and help sore and tightened muscles relax. Improved circulation can help eliminate the buildup of lactic acid waste occurs after some types of exercise.”
Back and neck pain = Ice + Heat
When it comes to back and neck pain, the effectiveness of cold or heat therapy depends on the type of injury or condition you’re dealing with. According to ExpressUK, “Patients should always aim to use a cold compress or ice pack after the onset of back pain, said Harvard Medical School. The cold numbs the affected area, and prevents inflammation from making the pain worse.
After a few days of treating your acute pain with ice, switch to warm, heated pads. The warmth boosts blood flow to the area, and helps it to heal faster, or in the case of a herniated disc, eases related muscle stiffness.