Too many people (including many healthcare providers) get this one wrong! Here’s a safe guideline to follow for yourself and your family.
First of all, understand what takes place with each type of application, then; understand what’s your goal in applying either ice or heat!
Your body is very responsive to temperature changes. Scientific research shows that your blood and lymphatic vessels either constrict (close) or expand (open) when exposed to sudden temperature changes. The change in temperature to create this activity only needs to be about 30 degrees difference from the surrounding tissue which ranges from ‘near room temperature’ to ‘core or near 100 degrees’ depending on the location ‘in’ or ‘on’ your body.
Ice, or any liquid/gel equivalent like Biofreeze, will cause your vessels to constrict (close) which will reduce the fluids (which is the same activity as an anti-inflammatory drug). Ice, seldom feels good upon first application as it seems to provide a shocking experience – which seems to be uncomfortable until the swelling is reduced (which causes a reduction of pressure and less pain). You can do no harm with appropriate application of ice.
Heat will cause your vessels to expand (open) which increases the fluids in an area – which increases nutrient delivery, expands the surface areas of the vessels and increases swelling /internal pressures on nerve endings. The increased delivery of nutrients provides a ‘good feeling’ similar to when you’re hungry and begin to eat. However, the other effects of the heat cause increased tissue space and pressure which rebound or increase signals to the nerve endings causing the pain to return (and sometimes at a higher level than before). But, since it feels good, we naturally want to put more on….which is absolutely wrong (all of the time!).
Pain (as experienced in any neck, whiplash, low back or ligament sprain) causes an ‘Inflammatory Response’ where the vessels in your injured area expand to draw increased fluids into the area (which is part of the innate process of healing). God designed an extremely intelligent body with protective and self-repair mechanisms. One of which is the swelling of blood and lymph vessels in an injured area to cause less movement, deliver increased nutrients, and begin the healing process. When you’re in pain, ice is the appropriate first response. Also, following any new injury, ice is the appropriate first response.
Muscle soreness, from overuse can be understood as tissue which was overworked, and underpaid! Muscle tissue needs oxygen and nutrients to properly perform, when ‘overworked’ the blood vessels in the muscle constrict and no longer deliver the oxygen and nutrients and may benefit from a brief application of heat to expand the delivery service, and restore normal function. However, you should never apply heat following athletic performance. Muscles will very likely return to their normal state of performance without the aid of heat.
Heat has some benefit for sore or stiff muscles or joints; and it is highly recommended for rheumatoid arthritis. It should be well understood BEFORE you use it; send a note to your healthcare provider for clarification. HEAT SHOULD NEVER BE USED ON A SMALL CHILD!
Heat also causes an irregular and potentially damaging activity to anyone with neurological problems or cancer. Ice does not. Heat feels good going on. Ice typically does not.
There are many factors to understand regarding the application of ice and heat. Unless you have formal training in the biomechanics and biochemistry of injury and trauma; apply ice! Remember…either help, or do no harm!
In summary, you can never go wrong with properly applied ice; and, you can cause more damage than good with heat (3 out of 4 times)!