Heat or Ice?
It may be hard for you to know what to do, or who to turn to, when you’re injured or in pain. One person tells you to apply heat, someone else says you should put ice on it, but how do you know what’s best? Self-treating with heat or ice is extremely common, mainly because it’s inexpensive and easy to use. Not only that, the scientific community seems to acknowledge that there could be some advantages to cryotherapy (ice) and thermotherapy (heat). However, some are saying it may not be worth it. Some even say it could be harmful! What gives? In the following article, I will explain the benefits and drawbacks of both options in an attempt to shed some light on the matter.
First off, let’s consider ice. Most of us have heard someone say “put some ice on it to slow down the inflammation!”. But then everyone gets confused when the next person says: “isn’t inflammation a natural process? Why are we interrupting it?” The truth is, while inflammation is a natural process, it can get out of control. This is especially true when it comes to injuries in which the skin is not broken, meaning there is no open wound. Examples of this would be a sprained ankle or a torn muscle. These types of injuries are called sterile injuries.
When the skin is broken (open wound), we need inflammation because there is a real risk of infection. However, when the skin is not broken (sterile injury), a swarm of immune cells at the injured area is not in our best interest. So in the case of sterile injuries, why does our body send tons of neutrophils (an immune cell) to the injured area? The short answer is mitochondria. When there is an internal injury, like a muscle tear, cells are destroyed. This releases things inside the cell, like mitochondria. These organelles have different DNA than our own cells, which makes our neutrophils want to attack them as they would do to foreign invaders (Ingraham, 2017).
This is why experts recommend that we ice a fresh, recent injury. It simply helps control unnecessary inflammation. However, this does not mean that it speeds healing. Think of ice as an analgesic (pain reliever). In other words, use ice to numb the pain a little bit and let your body do the rest. After all, your body is naturally equipped to self-heal!
Now let’s consider the other side of the coin: heat. Simply put, heat is best used for chronic muscle pain and stiffness. It also has the added benefit of being comforting and relaxing, which is why it tends to be more popular than ice. Generally speaking, if the injury is not recent, if there is no open wound, and if the skin is not red, hot, or swollen, then heat is a good option.
So when is heat not an option? If heat is applied to an area that is infected or freshly injured, it will certainly worsen the situation. The reason why is because heat increases blood supply. This means that more fluid will be brought to an area where there is already a lot of fluid because of the inflammatory response. The end result is simply too much fluid and therefore too much swelling and too much heat.
In the end, it’s important to remember that ice and heat are not long term solutions. In case of severe acute injuries such as a muscle tear or an infected open wound, medical intervention is needed. On the other hand, if it is an acute muscle spasm or chronic pain that ails you, osteopathy is your best option. Once the root cause is corrected, ice and heat will no longer be needed for pain-relieving purposes, which is certainly a better long term solution.
Ingraham, P. (2017, April 18). The Great Ice vs. Heat Confusion Debacle. Retrieved from https://www.painscience.com/articles/ice-heat-confusion.phpq