Ice or Heat for Pain and Injuries?

The purpose of this blog is to answer the question – “Should you use ice or heat for pain and injuries?”

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When NOT To Use Ice or Heat

It’s important to know when NOT to use ice or heat, or at least err on the side of caution. Examples include if you have:

  • Impaired circulation or sensation
  • An infection
  • An open wound

I’d also advise against using heat for a new injury or surgery that’s visibly inflamed as indicated by redness, swelling, and warmth.

This list is not all-inclusive. If you’re unsure, the best thing to do is consult with your medical doctor.

Ice or Heat for Injuries?

There are 2 primary reasons why you might be considering the use of ice or heat. The first reason is if you’re trying to increase tissue healing. 

When it comes to tissue healing, neither modality is likely to expedite your recovery. This is supported by the research, or lack thereof

There are some YouTube videos that suggest icing actually impairs or delays recovery based on a study titled, “Influence of icing on muscle regeneration after crush injury to skeletal muscles in rats.” However, this cannot be generalized to something like an ankle sprain in humans.

Heat and ice do have risks, but are unlikely to be harmful when applied appropriately for short durations.

The recommendation against ice may be appropriate if it’s accompanied by complete rest because movement and exercise influence healing.

In the case of an acute ankle sprain, you might reduce your amount of standing and walking for a short period of time to help protect the injured tissues. However, some movement is usually beneficial to reduce swelling and improve function.

The other big picture things that matter for tissue healing are sleep, stress levels, alcohol intake, smoking status, nutrition, and your general health.

Ice or Heat for Pain?

The second reason you might be considering the use of ice or heat is that you want to reduce symptoms, such as pain or stiffness.

In this case, the choice is based on your preference.

An easy rule of thumb is that if you think a warm shower or hot tub would make you feel more relaxed and comfortable, then heat might be the better option. An example might be if your neck is stiff or your low back feels “tight.”

Ultimately, the decision is up to you.

Practical Takeaway

So, coming back to the question: “Should you use ice or heat for pain and injuries?”

Assuming neither modality is contraindicated, it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. 

Neither will speed up tissue healing, so you can choose to use ice or heat based on your preference.

Want to learn more? Check out our some of our other similar blogs:

Imaging Myths, Exercise & Rehab Myths, Placebo

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