Chiropractors often see problems that are chronic, that is the person has been experiencing problems months if not years. On top of this, at our clinic in Eastbourne we also regularly see new injuries that are only days old. Among both these groups of patients, a topic that often causes a lot of confusion is icing, or rather when to ice vs when to heat. This is something that can be very confusing, so hopefully reading this blog will help you understand this topic better.
Firstly, what are ice and heat used for?
Ice is primarily used for injuries. When a tissue in the body gets injured, an inflammatory process takes place. This process is healthy and natural, but unfortunately also is painful and can take a longer time to occur than it needs to. Inflammation causes the damaged tissues to become red, hot and swollen, which is where ice helps. In this sense, ice can be thought of as a mild, drugless method to reduce inflammation. Your chiropractor at our Eastbourne clinic may even use cooling gel as part of a massage or soft tissue technique to enhance this effect.
Heat on the other hand is predominantly used for muscles, stress or chronic pain. Heat can be used in this way to take the edge off of the pain, to reduce the pain of whole muscle spasms and for calming down the nervous system and the mind, which we know is a major help in chronic pain problems.
What are heat and ice not to be used for?
Due to the opposite action of ice and heat, there is the potential that using the wrong method may actually make the problem worse. Heat and inflammation in particular are a very bad combination. Remember what we discussed above: fresh injuries cause inflammation, which leaves the area red, hot and swollen. Adding heat to this area that is already warm and swollen can cause the area to swell up even more and worsen the pain.
On the contrary, ice has the potential to make muscle spasms and chronic tension worse. Trigger points, which are painful sensitive spots within muscles, often develop in people with chronic pain problems. Despite feeling like something that may be helped by ice, these trigger points can actually worsen the pain and ache more acutely if iced. This is a common mistake people make with low back pain and neck pain.
Both of these methods are pointless when unwanted – for example heating when you’re already sweating or icing when you’re already freezing. Not only will this feel very uncomfortable, but the brain can sense things that are in excess as a threat, and when this occurs, the brain may also increase the pain sensation.
So if ice is supposed to be used on injuries and heat is supposed to be used on muscles, what do you do if there is a muscle injury? After all, this is one of the most common injuries that we will encounter on a day to day basis. Unfortunately, like most questions such as this, the answer is – it depends. Usually I would recommend icing for the first couple of days at most, before switching to heat. This should only be done if it is definitely a true muscle injury. Muscle injuries are normally caused by obvious trauma or overload during intense effort, causing sudden and severe pain immediately. In cases such as this, ice can be used to take the edge off the inflammation first, and then once the worst is over heat can be used to soothe the muscle.
At the end of the day, both heat pads and ice packs are not the most powerful forms of treatment, however they have both been shown to have mild benefits, so they are well worth trying. Despite the information above, the bottom line is use whatever feels best for you. You know your body better than anyone else, and if you hate the idea of taking a dip in the Eastbourne sea at Winter, icing may not be at the top of your wishlist! Similarly if you start to use one method and decide you don’t like the feel of it, then by all means just switch to the other and see if that helps.
Thanks for reading and I hope that you have learnt something. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact us here contact us here or ask us next time you are in our clinic in Eastbourne for an adjustment.
By James Revell
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