One of the most often-asked questions in physical therapy is “should I use heat or ice?” Which one to use, at what time, how often, and for how long?
Heat and ice both have different effects on the body and it is important to understand them so you can utilize both to your advantage.
Heat will increase circulation and blood flow to the area applied. This can be helpful for feelings of stiffness or tightness in muscles or joints. Stiffness or tightness can develop if you are not mobile enough, but if pain is keeping you from increasing your mobility, then heat can be an easier solution.
Heat can also help after a heavy workout or a particularly active day. Being active and up on your feet all day can fatigue your muscles just like a heavy workout, and this can cause feelings of tightness. A hot pack can relieve these sensations and get you back to your daily activities sooner.
Finally, heat can relieve tension in muscles that arises from stress or anxiety. Often, the muscles of the neck and shoulders can tighten up from dealing with a difficult day. This is the most common place people feel stress, but it can also manifest in any area of the body. Relaxing with a hot pack on these tense areas at the end of the day can help ease the pain and hopefully help reduce your stress too.
There are many products available on the market including electric hot packs, microwavable gel hot packs, and others. An easy way to make a hot pack is to microwave a wet bath towel for one minute. Another method is putting uncooked rice in a clean pillowcase, and microwaving it for one minute. Make sure you always have a layer of cloth, such as your clothing, or a clean towel, between your skin and the hot pack to avoid skin damage.
When should you not use heat? It is not recommended to use heat on a new injury. A new injury generates an inflammatory response, which includes a rise in temperature and circulation to the injured area. Adding more heat would be counter-productive, as this would be the ideal time to use ice.
Ice reduces the temperature in an area by causing the small blood vessels to constrict, thereby restricting the flow of any blood or fluid to the area. This will reduce the inflammation and swelling resulting from a new injury. The ice also has a numbing effect, so it can also help with pain temporarily.
Both ice and heat are parts of rehabilitating an injury or an area of concern. However, neither of these modalities will heal or fix the problem on their own. It is important to incorporate them into an overall plan of care, which should also include a thorough evaluation of your injury, identifying habits that are not allowing for healing, and identifying faulty movement patterns.
If you are suffering any pain or are unable to perform your day to day tasks, visit us at Potentia Therapeutics for a full evaluation and a treatment plan to help you get back to life without pain.