Ice vs Heat Therapy for Injury Recovery: Which is Better?

A woman in a yellow sweater applies a pain relief ice pack to the back of her neck. Ice vs Heat

Ice and heat therapy are both effective and inexpensive tools that everyone can use to help relieve aches and soreness from minor injuries. In this article, the experts at Team Chiropractic will provide our readers with an informed understanding of when to use ice versus heat therapy so that they can make informed decisions about their injury recovery. We’ll also show you how you can begin to incorporate ice and heat therapy at home, so you can start to melt (or freeze) the pain away.

When To Use Cryotherapy or Ice Treatment

Cryotherapy or ice therapy is the process of treating an injury through the application of a cold substance. Essentially, it’s any type of treatment that involves the use of very cold or freezing temperatures. Cryotherapy has a wide range of both at-home and advanced medical uses. Most have certainly heard the advice to apply an ice pack to a swollen or sore area of the body, and you may have seen cryotherapy used to freeze off simple warts or even clusters of potentially cancerous cells. More advanced versions of ice therapy, sometimes referred to in the medical and wellness community as “cryotherapy” include ice massages, whirlpools, or cryotherapy chambers.

Common ways to benefit from ice therapy at home include the use of ice packs, coolant sprays, ice baths, or similar easily accessible cold applications. One of the easiest ways anyone can use ice therapy using items you already have around the home is to wrap an ice pack (or even a bag of frozen vegetables) in a hand towel. Apply the wrapped frozen material to the sore or strained area. Keep in mind that you should never apply ice directly to your skin without some form of a barrier (i.e., a hand towel) between the frozen material and your body. Start by using this ice application method several times per day for short periods of time, applying ice for no longer than 15 to 20 minutes for each period.

When To Use Thermotherapy or Heat Therapy

Thermotherapy or heat therapy is the process of relaxing or soothing muscles and healing damaged tissue through the application of a warm or hot substance. Common types of at-home heat therapy include the use of heating pads, dry heat packs, saunas, steamed towels, and hot baths. More advanced versions of thermotherapy include the application of ultrasound heat and even thermal ablation or hyperthermia, which has been used to help treat cancer.

You can access many of the benefits of thermotherapy through inexpensive, at-home treatments. For muscle-related aches and pains, you can create a warm compress with just two towels and a zip-lock bag. Wet the towels with water and squeeze out the excess water until your towels are damp (but not dripping). Put the towels in a zip lock bag, leaving the bag unzipped. Microwave the towel in the zip-lock bag for about two minutes. Once done, remove one towel from the bag, seal the bag, and wrap one towel around the bag. Apply the towel inside the zip-lock bag to your skin, using the second warm towel as a barrier.

When to Use Ice Vs. Heat Therapy for Injuries or Pain

Cryotherapy is known to help with muscle pain, promote healing of injury, and even help ease some joint disorders, including arthritis. If you have a minor injury related to a bone or joint, ice should be used as soon as possible. A good rule of thumb for using ice when treating an injury is to use ice immediately to cool down a swollen area. Cooling down injured tissue as soon as you notice an injury can help prevent further damage to the affected tissue.

Heat, on the other hand, should be used after the first three days (72 hours) after an injury, after swelling has peaked. Heat therapy is most beneficial for sore muscles, as it increases blood flow and helps to warm up muscles. It’s also a common and effective at-home treatment for sinus congestion, boils and cysts, ear infections, and menstrual cramps.

Pros & Cons of Ice Therapy

As discussed above, when used correctly, ice therapy can be wonderful, affordable, and easily accessible—but it’s not without potential risks. Ice packs that are too cold or left on your skin for too long may cause skin and tissue damage. If swelling doesn’t respond to ice therapy or if your pain persists, seek medical attention.

Pros & Cons of Heat Therapy

We’ve discussed the many pros (and extensive potential uses) of heat therapy above, but patients should be wary of the potential risks of using heat therapy at home. If careful attention isn’t exercised, burns can result from heat therapy, and swelling can be increased–ultimately causing you more harm than good. Always keep in mind that if your injury involves swelling, heat should be avoided, and ice should be used instead until swelling has ceased. If aches and soreness don’t respond to heat therapy, patients should seek medical attention.

Team Chiropractic:

Are you suffering from chronic pain, including back pain? Persistent pain is a sign that medical intervention may be necessary. The experts at Team Chiropractic & Sports Medicine, P.A. can help isolate and treat the core issues that are to blame for your discomfort. We’re the home of evidence-based spinal reengineering and chiropractic sports medicine. With over 50 years of combined experience, we’re proud to serve Chapel Hill, Research Triangle Park, Durham, Raleigh, Clayton, Wendell, Zebulon, Wafe Forrest, and the surrounding areas in North Carolina.

If you’re looking for chiropractic treatment in the greater Triangle area, we are here to help! Contact us online today or give us a call at 919-788-8881 to schedule your initial appointment and x-ray at either of our convenient Triangle locations. We look forward to helping restore your health!


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