One of the biggest questions we can get as physical therapists is “should I use heat or ice”? There are a few key things that can help you choose the best method for your pain or injury.
When you have an acute injury (less than 6 weeks old) ice is the way to go in order to constrict blood vessels which will help decrease pain, limit inflammation and minimize bruising. You definitely do not want to use heat new injuries because this can cause more inflammation and swelling which can delay proper healing.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you have an older injury or lingering pain (older than 6 weeks) then heat is OK. Heat increases blood flow to the area which aids in relaxing tight muscles and decrease aching in the joints. These benefits can also be helpful to improve range of motion which assists you in getting back to a more normalized routine.
There are instances where you can use both. For example, heat is beneficial prior to stretching or performing light exercise such as your home exercise program. When you are finished you can use ice to help prevent flare ups or inflammation that may occur. Another situation where a combination of heat and ice is useful is muscle strains; like new injuries, it is best to begin with ice to ease inflammation. When that initial inflammation or swelling has subsided, heat can be beneficial to help ease any stiffness or tightness in the muscles.
In summary, ice is great for new injuries or pain when there is inflammation and swelling present in order to minimize this. Heat is best when there is stiffness and tightness to help relax the muscles. Both work well for pain. Ask your therapist if you have any questions or concerns about which method is best for you!