How to Use Ice and Heat to Manage Pain from Injuries?
No matter how careful we are, injuries can happen. Everyone is prone to injuries in their daily lives, from minor cuts and scrapes to bone fractures, torn muscles, and burns. While some require a trip to the doctor or even a hospital, most injuries can be treated at home. In many cases, home treatment involves the use of ice and heat to manage pain.
While it may seem easier to reach for a bottle of pills, pain medications may not always be the best choice. Ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can actually slow down healing. Opioids and other prescription painkillers can also leave you feeling groggy and are highly addictive.
Warm and cold temperatures have opposite effects on your body, but both can help you ease pain from an injury. Applying ice to an injury can help decrease swelling and pain, for example, while heat can improve circulation, relax injured muscles, heal damaged tissue, and melt stiffness to improve your flexibility.
Benefits of Using Ice to Treat Pain
Cold temperatures slow down circulation to decrease bruising, reduce metabolic activity, and decrease inflammation. Ice also numbs your skin to reduce pain.
Risks of Using Ice
While icing a sore injury can help to reduce pain, prolonged use of ice can cause frostbite, especially if you apply it directly to your skin. To reduce this risk, make sure you are wrapping the ice pack in a towel and don’t leave it on your skin for long periods of time. You should not use ice to manage pain if:
- You are about to exercise, as the ice will cause the muscle to contract in ways that can cause further injury.
- You have poor circulation from diabetes or another condition that limits your skin’s ability to feel sensations.
- You have an open wound.
Options for Applying Ice
An ice pack is the best method when your injury is larger, such as a swollen knee, shoulder tendinitis, or muscle spasms in your back or neck. If you don’t already own a reusable ice pack, you can make your own by filling a plastic bag with small ice cubes or crushed ice or by using a bag of frozen vegetables. You can also use an ice bath or ice whirlpool to reduce swelling in your arm or leg joints.
How to Apply an Ice Pack
For best results, apply the ice immediately following your injury. Always keep a damp cloth between the ice pack and your skin to avoid frostbite.
Place the ice pack on the affected area for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Remember, leaving the ice on too long can damage your skin. Move the ice pack around so that it does not sit in one spot for too long.
Ice the area at least three times a day. For the first 72 hours after your injury, apply ice for 10 minutes every hour on the first day, and then apply ice three times a day for 15 to 20 minutes. Allow at least 30 minutes between icing sessions to give your skin time to warm up, and check to be sure the treatment area is warm to the touch and has normal sensation before repeating.
You can also use ice along with compression, elevation, bracing, and support.
Benefits of Using Heat to Treat Pain
Heat increases circulation, boosts metabolic activity to heal damaged tissue, and relaxes your muscles. It can also be used to relieve pain and spasms associated with neck or back injuries. You may find this method most useful to warm up stiff or scarred soft tissue before stretching or exercising.
Risks of Using Heat
While heat is great for treating and managing pain, applying heat to an injury can increase swelling and inflammation. You’ll want to be sure not to overuse heat or apply it at excessively high temperatures, as this can cause burns. Avoid using heat:
- Immediately after an injury or physical activity.
- If the area is numb.
- If there is a burn or open wound in the treatment area,
- If you have a high body temperature from fever or heat stress.
Options for Applying Heat
There are two main methods when it comes to applying heat to ease the pain: dry heat and moist heat. Dry heat (in the form of electric heating pads and heating blankets) provides consistent temperatures, and they are easy to use. Moist heat (such as heat wraps, warm baths, and hot showers) penetrates deeper into your muscle tissue.
How to Apply Heat
The longer you apply heat, the more relaxed your muscles will feel. Apply heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or try an all-day heat pack, available at your pharmacy.
Alternate Heat and Ice
For maximum relief from the pain associated with sprains, strains, and achy muscles, try switching between hot and cold compresses. For example, use heat for 15 to 20 minutes, then apply ice to the affected area for 10 to 15 minutes a few hours later. Keep alternating between the two for the best results.
When to Use Ice vs. Heat
Cleveland Clinic outlines when to use ice versus heat to treat injury pain.
You should use ice for:
- Acute injuries that are less than six weeks old
- Headaches over your forehead, eyes, and temples
Use heat for:
- Headaches from neck spasms
Use a combination of heat and ice for:
- Muscle strains and sprains
Treating injuries with hot and cold compresses can help melt away stiffness, aches, and pain, but only if you apply them correctly. For more information about when and how to use heat and ice to relieve pain, consult with your orthopaedic specialists.