Shifnal Chiropractic Clinic

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Heat or Ice?


Heat or Ice? 3 rules to guide you

It’s the old debate – if you injure yourself, should you treat it with a hot water bottle or an ice pack?  I tend to find that everyone instinctively reaches for the first, I suppose because heat is comforting and soothing, but more often than not we should actually be digging in the freezer instead.

Ice is nature’s anti-inflammatory.  Whenever an injury is in its first stages, it will usually become hot and swollen, both signs that it is inflamed.  While this is easy to see in something like a sprained ankle, when the injury is in your back it is not always so obvious as the joints are much smaller and much deeper in your body.  The swelling is nevertheless there, and it is often what causes a lot of the pain.  By putting ice on the area, we are calming down that swelling and reducing it, allowing the pain to dissipate and giving you some relief.

So should you ever use heat? Well, in certain circumstances, yes.  If the pain you are experiencing is the result of tight muscles, such as when you end up with a headache after a stressful day at work, then the heat is able to work on those muscles and relax them.   Whether you choose to use a hot water bottle or a wheat bag, the tension in the muscle that is causing you pain will gradually ease under the warmth.

The trouble is, it’s not always clear which is causing the pain – muscle tension or inflammation.  After all, inflammation around a joint will often cause the muscles to tighten, while a tight muscle may restrict the movement of a joint and cause it to become inflamed.  And while ice is great for taking down inflammation, it will tighten already-tight muscles; similarly, heat will relax those tight muscles, but cause an increase in inflammation!  So sometimes the only way to treat a problem area is to use ice for 10 minutes to reduce the inflammation, then rest the area for 10 minutes, then use heat for another 10 minutes to relax those muscles.  Cycling the two this way will hopefully give just the right balance between anti-inflammation and muscle relaxation to ease your pain.

Put simply then:

  1. If you have just injured yourself, ICE is almost always the way to go.

  2. If the problem is more tension-related, then try HEAT.

  3. If neither works on their own, try 10 mins of one, 10 mins rest and then 10 mins of the other to balance the reduction of inflammation and reduction of muscle tension offered by both.

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