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To Ice or Not to Ice – That is the Question

June 16, 2012

The many aches and pains that we all experience could be due to minor injury, age, or even poor posture.  Regardless of their source, relief from such ailments is something we all seek out.  But, there are conflicting messages as to whether or not it is better to apply ice to an injury, or to apply heat.  We have cold compresses, and heating pads; we have ice baths, and hot showers; we have products such as “Icy Hot” that seem to combine both ideas.  So the question is, when is the proper time to ice an injury, and when should we turn on the heat?

Heat and ice have opposite effects on the body.  Whereas heat causes a widening of the capillaries and thus an increase of blood flow to muscles having a relaxing effect, ice constricts the blood flow and thus reduces swelling of the part of the body to which it is applied.  Therefore, it is important to understand the injury so that you know which method of relief to utilize.

Acute vs. Chronic Personal Injury

The type of injury you are seeking to treat is most likely one of these two types of injury.  An acute injury is one that is usually a direct cause of an impact of some sort:  a fall, a collision, a sprain.  It can be characterized by swelling and tenderness, redness, and of course pain.  The swelling and pain are caused from the trauma of the impact, which caused the capillaries, or tiny blood vessels, to break and “leak” blood into the surrounding areas.  Because these capillaries are indeed broken and causing swelling, it makes sense to treat acute injuries with ice, as its constricting effect will slow down the leakage and thus calm the swelling.  Acute injuries are usually rather short lived.  When the swelling goes down – as long as there is no damage to ligaments, tendons, or bones –  the pain often subsides.

A chronic personal injury is one that develops gradually over time and can be the result of overusing our bodies.  These injuries often are categorized by dull pain, recurring pain, tightness, or general soreness. Carpal tunnel syndrome and recurring lower back pain are examples of chronic personal pain caused by improper repetitive motions.   The chronic injury usually benefits from heat therapy because of the need for the relaxing effect that comes from the increase of blood flow brought on by the heat.  Pain that comes from stiff, sore muscles tends to be alleviated once heat is applied in 20 minute intervals.

It is very important to know the nature of your injury before you start any type of self-treatment; but as a general rule of thumb, ice an acute injury, and apply heat to a chronic injury.  As always, if your symptoms don’t improve, be sure to seek the advice of your doctor.

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