Should you ice or heat?

The question has been posed on many occasions.. “Should I use ice or heat on it?”

Well, that depends on what “it” is, and what the goal is.

If temporary pain reduction is the goal, then both ice and heat will work in a similar manner – by activating sensory receptors that essentially override the pain signal. 

Let’s focus on ice – What does it do?

  • Vasoconstriction – narrowing of the blood vessels, which reduces the amount of blood flow to the area of application
    • The body does this to prevent extra heat loss from its core temperature
    • This also reduces swelling & inflammation
  • Numbness can be a result of prolonged cold temperature to an area, reducing pain and sensitivity.

Back in the day, it was thought that ice should be applied directly after acute injuries (ie. ankle sprains), but more recent research shows that it can actually DELAY the healing process. It turns out that the body knows what it’s doing, and that by reducing the body’s natural inflammatory process, we are indeed blunting many processes that occur to promote healing. 

So what does heat do?

  • Vasodilation – widening of the blood vessels, increasing the amount of blood flow to the area of application
  • Reduces joint stiffness & muscle spasms

It’s best to avoid applying heat to an area that is swollen, since it can/will make that swelling worse. Excessive swelling can limit joint mobility and also inhibit the nearby muscles’ ability to contract.  

So there you have it. Those are the very basics and rules of thumb to follow. As with most topics, there are exceptions to the rules. Reach out if you have any questions!

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