Heat Vs. Ice

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It’s a common question we hear in the office: should I use heat or ice for my injury? Choosing the right one will help control pain and speed up the process of healing, but knowing which to use can be tricky at times! Here are a few tips for knowing when to use heat or ice:

When should heat be used?


Heat, or in more technical terms, thermotherapy, is generally used for muscle pain, chronic muscle tightness and “knots”, and stress relief. When muscles tighten up, they can feel stiff and sore, causing headaches, neck pain, and back pain. Often, our emotional state can affect our body, so heat after a long day at work can keep muscles from tightening up too much. Though, if you’re in Southern California like us, you may not want that heat at all! Still, it’s an excellent therapy to use as an alternative to a pain relieving medication.

One thing to note: while heat is great for tightened muscles, you don’t want to use it on recently injured muscles! For example, pulled or torn muscles are better treated by ice, which is explained in our next section.

There are two ways you can apply heat to stressed muscles: locally or systemically. Local heating can be done with a heating pad, a hot gel pack, or a warm bean bag. Systemic heat is really helpful for muscle tension caused by emotional distress – this is when you heat your entire body temperature, usually in a jacuzzi, bath, or shower. When taking a bath, one thing you can use is Epsom Salt to help increase the relaxing benefits of the warm water. I prefer a lavender blend; using it about an hour before bed helps me relax AND stave off insomnia.

When should ice be used?

Ice pack

Ice (cryotherapy) is generally used for fresh injuries, inflammation, and pain relief. Often we have patients who come in after they “throw out their back” – usually meaning that they strained some muscles in their back. Ice is something we use to help reduce pain and allow Doctor Becerra to treat patients without as much discomfort. Sports injuries are another example of what would need ice; shin splints from running or dancing benefit from icing. Even though shin splints, or other chronic conditions like tendonitis, aren’t always “fresh injuries” and instead flare up from time to time, the new inflammation can be managed with ice.

There are a few different options for how to ice the affected area, but one thing we recommend is a gel pack like the one in the above picture. The ones we sell at our office are flexible even when frozen, so you can fold and bend it so mold to whatever location you need. So for those shin splints, you can wrap the pack around your calf and get every part!

Obviously, ice and heat won’t fix everything, but starting with one or the other is a proactive way towards healing! They’re resources that can be used instead of reaching for a pain pill first. Always remember that even though you may be treating the discomfort, you should still check to see if there’s any underlying reason for the pain.

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