One of the questions I get asked by patients, friends, family, and even random people that find out I’m a Physical Therapist is if they should use ice or heat on a specific body part. This is a good question and it can be answered in any number of ways. Before we answer this, let’s take a quick peak at the properties of ice and heat and what they can do for you.
Ice can numb an area (which is why you don’t want to leave it on too long for risk of frostbite). It also is known as a vasoconstrictor which means that it decreases the size of the blood vessels in the area. Due to decreased diameter of blood vessels, that means decreased blood flow in the area, which can decrease inflammation.
Heat does the opposite of ice in that it is a vasodilator. This means it increases the size of blood vessels and increases blood flow in the area. This can increase inflammation. Heat can soothe aches and pains of chronic conditions such as arthritis.
In general principle, ice can be considered like an anti-inflammatory (like ibuprofen) and heat can be considered like a muscle-relaxer. I tell anyone that asks that they should use ice on a new (acute) injury before trying heat. After that I ask them to think if they need anti-inflammatory effects or muscle-relaxing effects.
Considering this, I also recommend that anyone with an injury that doesn’t resolve in a few days go see a Physical Therapist. We can use our tool box of skills to address more issues than inflammation by taking people through assessments of the body and joint specific structures to make sure there is no major damage to the area.