The difference between ice and heat and when to use each for painful conditions in Parkville/Baltimore

October 24, 2016


Using ice or heat as a means to alleviate pain is a simple and effective home remedy that’s been used for ages. Today, it’s commonly recommended throughout the world for these very same reasons and remains useful for mild to moderate pain in many situations, but there’s still some confusion regarding their use. So we’d like to clear the air and break down when each one should be used for painful conditions in Parkville/Baltimore.

Patients commonly ask us whether it’s better to use ice (cryotherapy) or heat (thermotherapy) to help reduce their pain. To understand which option is best in each case, we first need to explain what happens during an injury.

When an injury occurs—let’s use an ankle sprain for this example—the soft tissue in the ankle becomes damaged and tiny blood vessels (capillaries) are broken. This leads to blood leaking into nearby tissues, and the excess blood eventually causes the main signs of inflammation in the ankle: swelling, redness, heat, pain and tenderness. Pain can also persist after the inflammation reduces and can occur from other causes as well, and each of these situations requires a different approach.

Below, our physical therapists offer these explanations to help you determine whether to use ice or heat for your painful conditions in Parkville/Baltimore:

Ice: applying ice constricts (shrinks) blood vessels, which numbs pain, relieves inflammation and limits bruising

  • Ice should primarily be used for injuries or any other time in which inflammation is present, since it will help prevent further leakage of blood
  • This includes strains, sprains and any other injuries that are less than six weeks old (acute), as well as flare-ups of gout
  • Best to use within the RICE protocol: Rest- minimize movement of the injured body part; Ice- apply ice for 15-20 minutes, 4-6 times a day for the first 48 hours; Compression- apply light pressure to the affected body part; Elevation- raise body part to reduce pressure from blood and tissue
  • Always cover the ice and use ice packs, frozen food or gel packs if needed

Heat: increases blood flow, which relaxes tight muscles and relieves aching joints

  • Use heat for pain lasting longer than six weeks (chronic) or sore joints, including conditions like arthritis and back or neck pain
  • Do not use for acute injuries, which can make it worse, or if you have diabetes or peripheral vascular disease
  • The temperature should be warm, rather than hot; try using heating pads, heating wraps, steamed towels, warm baths and paraffin wax (use caution)
  • Apply for 15-20 min. (or longer if advised) 3x/day for suggested duration

Also keep in mind that headaches are one exception that both ice and heat can help treat in different ways. If you’re still not certain whether ice or heat is best for one of your painful conditions in Parkville/Baltimore, contact CAM Physical Therapy and Wellness Services, in Laurel, Hyattsville, Glenn Dale/Bowie and Parkville/Baltimore, MD at 301-853-0093 to schedule an appointment today, or click here for more information on ice and heat.