Monday, April 8, 2019

Ice versus Heat: A Hot (or Cold) Topic

by Constance Taras, PT
One of the questions we most commonly field when patients have first sustained an injury is “Should I ice it, or would heat be better?” Both heat and ice are conservative, beneficial modalities, but to better understand the benefits of either, let’s first look at the physiological effects of each:

Typically, the more traditional approach is to apply ice to musculoskeletal injuries, but the type of musculoskeletal injury is important. For acute injuries that are swollen, warm, and painful (such as ankle sprains), ice can temporarily numb the area and decrease pain signals from the nerves, therefore decreasing pain. Ice also constricts the surrounding blood vessels so that less fluid and fewer cells arrive at the injured area. While this could theoretically slow down healing to the area as it does restrict the flow of healing mediator cells (leukocytes) to the area, it also means that less swelling is present. Less pressure on all the surrounding structures could mean less pain and improved range of motion.

However, what if we are dealing with a more chronic injury? Chronic injuries often suffer from decreased blood flow to the injured area, and as a result have a harder time healing. Application of heat, therefore, is the more beneficial modality, as it increases the rate that blood and repairing cells reach the injured site to improve the overall healing process. We also tend to recommend heat over ice in the case of a muscle in spasm or a tight muscle: the improved tissue extensibility provided by heat helps to relax shortened and tensed muscles in order to decrease spam and ultimately pain. Heat also allows improved stretching and increased range of motion, whereas ice could cause the muscle to tighten further, decreasing range of motion at a joint.

But an equally important factor to consider is how heat or ice makes you feel! If ice makes your pain worse or vice versa then it may not be the best option for you, even if clinically it makes more sense (unless it is contraindicated by other health conditions, such as diabetes, Raynaud’s disease or hypertension). If you are unsure what is the best modality for you and your specific injury, reach out to a Lakeshore physical therapist to help you build a customized plan!

Malanga et. al. Mechanisms and efficacy of heat and cold therapies for musculoskelatal injury. Postgrad Med 2015; Early Online 1-9.