Patients commonly ask if it’d be more beneficial to use heat or ice for their injury. Although it’s important to still ask your PT on an individual basis, the following are some guidelines to help determine which modality may be most appropriate.
Heat is typically not used for any injury that is acute (occurred less than 7 days ago). Heat increases blood flow to an area, which helps promote healing and is also good for reducing tension in the muscles. Heat is often used to reduce trigger points and muscle spasms. It can be advantageous to heat a muscle prior to any flexibility or range-of-motion exercises. Ice is typically used on recent injuries and the main goal is to reduce inflammation, pain, and swelling. It’s often nice to use ice after strengthening exercises in order to reduce subsequent swelling and soreness.
Rarely will ice or heat completely take care of your injury. However, they may be nice additions to an active treatment approach (development of a home exercise program). Both heat and ice should be applied to skin wrapped in towels in order to prevent burning/freezing of the skin. Apply either for approximately 15 min at a time.
Heat or ice should NOT be used if there are open wounds, signs of infection, decreased sensation, or poor circulation to an area. If any of these conditions are present, check with your doctor/PT before trialing either.