Dr Ebony Muratore
The great debacle. The big confusion. The golden question.
I am so often asked by people which therapy is better, ice or heat? They both have their own theories, but is one really better than the other? And when should we use them?
Hopefully this can simplify things a little!
Research has shown that inflammation is actually a good thing. When the body is injured and there is an influx of inflammatory cells sent to the injured area, it acts as a signal to the brain; “HELLO, up there! We have an injury-start repairing!” If it wasn’t for this inflammation the body wouldn’t know that there is anything to fix. The problem with ice is that it can do exactly what we have always wanted it to do-stop the inflammation! Can you understand now why this actually may not be such a great idea?!
Ice can have SOME benefits though (are you getting confused yet?). Along with inflammation can come swelling, bruising, heat and pain. Ice can help to decrease the swelling and act as a temporary pain relief, which may in turn help get you moving a bit easier and more quickly (moving being something that research has shown to be KEY in injury healing!). However, if we use ice over a whole 2-3 day period like we once learnt, the healing process can be significantly delayed-NOT what we want!!
The benefits of heat are that it encourages fresh blood flow to the area of injury. Fresh blood means fresh oxygen, and fresh oxygen can help reduce muscle tightness and pain and help start the healing process. But don’t forget that if used too soon after an acute injury, heat can also increase inflammation which will make that swelling, bruising and pain worse-also not what we want (confused again?).
So, the most important thing for you to learn is which type of injuries require what-
Generally, if you have an acute injury which results in swelling and bruising and enough pain to prevent you from moving the area (more often a joint) you can try ice for the first DAY, and if it seems bad enough even heading off to the doctor for an x-ray to rule out a fracture isn’t a bad idea. The aim is to decrease the pain and swelling enough to be able to start moving it again.
If there is no swelling, bruising, redness or heat, for example if you’ve hurt your lower back but it is something you’ve been dealing with on and off for years, you’ve done it many times in the past and you know that when it happens all of your muscles tighten right up and restrict you from moving, you are most likely best to reach for that heat pack. The aim again, to decrease the tightness and stiffness so you can start moving better sooner.
If you are entirely unsure on what to use, you may want to leave it completely for a day or two before trying heat. By this time the acute inflammation will have started to settle so using ice isn’t going to benefit you much.
Seeing a therapist after any injury is always a good idea. Even though you may have experienced it before there could be an underlying reason that it keeps recurring, so getting to the bottom of it will help you in the long run.
Neither therapies have proven to significantly improve healing times, they are more simply used for temporary pain relief and to get you moving again, which CAN help you recover sooner.
So what have we learnt?
Inflammation is a vital part of injury healing, but managing the pain initially can help get you moving again, which will help tissue healing further. While movement is good, high impact activities are best avoided at first. Protecting the area is ok WITHIN reason, however we now know that moving an injured area sooner rather than later will assist in recovery, so try not to be overprotective.
There will always be slight variations amongst people, injuries, areas etc, so if in doubt it’s always a good idea to get a professional opinion!
Dr Ebony Muratore
The Natural Health and Wellness Clinic