When it comes to applying ice and applying heat to the muscles or injuries there can be a bit of confusion about what the right option is. In general both ice and heat are considered mildly effective, so they might not fix the issue completely but they can help. Here we break it down in an easy to remember way that will hopefully help to prevent some pain.
Icing is for injuries. When we’re dealing with an injury in the body we’re trying to calm down the inflammation that occurs that can lead to swelling and pain. There’s nothing wrong with inflammation except that it hurts. The act of blood rushing to the scene of an injury is happening for a reason, so that it can heal.
Heat on the other hand is for chronic pain like an achy back. It’s not injured, but it still needs some tender loving care. Sometimes we get muscles spasms or trigger points start driving us crazy, and those are both candidates for heat therapy.
Icing can make muscles tense up more, so icing is not the right choice when you’re trying to soothe a sore neck or tight shoulders from sitting at the computer all day.
Heat can make inflammation worse since it’s already hot, so adding heat to a swollen throbbing ankle isn’t going to calm it down, especially if the injury is new.
One exception to the rule about icing vs heat has to do with the lower back. When the lower back is in pain it almost always would prefer to be treated with heat, unless the back is actually strained not just experiencing generally pain from overuse or stress.
Most lower back pain is not from a strain however, as this usually only happens during an extreme movement such as picking up something that is too heavy in the wrong position. To guess if it’s actually a strain, you’ll want to ask yourself whether the pain came on suddenly during a movement or exercise or whether it was more of a gradual thing. A real strain is more likely to cause redness or swelling in the area, where chronic pain almost certainly will not.
Necks are similar in the sense that most neck pain is not actually an injury, however necks are more likely to get injured than lower backs are so that’s something to consider. Whiplash can cause inflammation and tissue damage which will benefit from ice, but a general tired neck will do better with heat.
One other thing to keep in mind is the fact that neither are helpful if the body doesn’t want it. If you’re cold and add ice or really hot and add heat the body might not like it which can actually increase the amount of pain your feeling. It’s really important to pay attention to the signals that you’re getting from your body no matter what you think you’re supposed to be doing.