Ice Vs Heat

December 10, 2022


Everybody experiences pain at one time or another. The pain may be caused by a new injury or a nagging old one. The bottom line is we want to feel better and to get out of pain as quickly as possible.

Thermal modalities (such as ice & heat) are time-tested solutions to getting rid of the pain. But how do you know if you should be using ice or heat? I routinely get asked that question.

Many people create more problems for themselves by using the wrong modality at the wrong time. The key to correctly choosing ice or heat depends on the situation.

Consider the Following

  • You’ve got a nagging old football injury.
  • One day ago, you fell down a flight of stairs and injured your ribs and your right hip.
  • Two months ago you were in a car accident that left you with ongoing neck pain.
  • You twisted your ankle a week ago while skiing.
  • Your child got hit in the head by a baseball during a game.

What do you do about these problems? How do you correctly select the right thermal modality (ice vs. heat)? Which one do you select, and how frequently do you apply the therapy?

First Things First

The first thing one needs to consider is how long ago the injury occurred. Recent injuries are ones that occurred within the past 24 to 36 hours.

For new injuries, you want to use ice. After a trauma, the body goes through a healing process. This process involves a number of phases. These are:

1. The inflammatory phase
2. The proliferative phase
3. The remodeling phase

The Inflammatory Phase

During the inflammatory phase, the capillary beds open up to allow more blood flow to the injured region. This is often accompanied by redness (rubor), an increase in temperature (calor), pain (dolor), and swelling (tumor).

Can I Speed Up The Healing?

These events are important, not only to protect the injured area but also to ensure proper healing takes place. However, while the inflammatory process is important, it is possible (and desirable) to accelerate the healing process without jeopardizing anything by altering the blood flow to the injury site.

ice for new injury

We have the ability to modulate this process by way of the careful application of ice. Ice is a natural anti-inflammatory. It reduces pain & swelling and without any adverse effects on the liver or kidneys (as what you may get by taking drugs). Ice works by closing capillary blood flow, reducing swelling and edema, and numbing the affected region.

How Long and How Often?

I use ice for fifteen minutes followed by a one-hour interval before reapplying the ice again. Why take it off for an hour? You must allow the tissues to sufficiently warm up before using ice again so you don’t get frostbite or freezer burn.

The Proliferative Phase

Once the inflammatory phase has been completed, the body transitions to the proliferative phase. This is when the body starts to try to patch the injured area by laying down connective tissue and scar tissue.

The Remodeling Phase

At this point, we want to encourage this process as much as possible by opening blood flow to the affected region. Heat facilitates capillary blood flow. It soothes and relaxes muscles, allows for a fuller pain-free range of motion and additionally, it feels great. Heating tissues is also appropriate for use during the remodeling phase (the final phase of tissue repair).

What About Chronic Conditions?

heating pad

For chronic problems, you will generally want to use heat as the preferred thermal modality. My rule of thumb when using heat is to apply it for approximately 15-20 minutes per session.

Another thing you can try for older chronic problems is to use ice-heat contrast. This is using heat early on in the day (or before exercise). Then use ice at the conclusion of the exercise (or at the end of the day). Think about what you’ve always heard about exercise. You warm up before and cool down after. Using heat and ice facilitates this and gives you a more profound effect.

Chiropractors, physical therapists, and athletic trainers all use ice & heat to help their patients feel better, move better and heal faster. Using these modalities correctly will allow you to get out of pain and get back to doing your activities of daily living.

If you have any questions about the phases of healing or about using thermal modalities, give us a call: 412-595-7332