Ice and heat have been used for centuries as they were thought to promote a speedy recovery, limit swelling, soothe aches and pains, manage injuries, and allow the body to move easier to name a few benefits. However, research has gone back and forth on this topic, and along with a good dose of common sense, new research is shedding light on when and how to use ice or heat for injuries.
Ice, otherwise known as cryotherapy, has an immediate effect on the body. It reduces swelling or inflammation by constricting the blood vessels surrounding injured tissues, and numbs the painful area by reducing the sensitivity of nerve endings. It also can inhibit healing by reducing blood flow, and chilling the damaged tissue allowing for decreased sensation and a false belief that everything is fine and you can push through it, thereby potentially further injuring yourself. In essence, ice can decrease the body’s natural response to heal.
Heat, otherwise known as thermotherapy, increases blood flow to surrounding tissues. Bringing with it the biological mechanisms that the body uses to repair damaged cells or injured tissues. It also relaxes tight muscles and helps to alleviate aches and pains in arthritic joints. But it too, can have damaging effects on the body. If initially the swelling is so excessive that it causes pain and limited motion in a joint or muscle, and by heating you increase blood flow and inflammation, it has the potential to cause more pain and limitation for movement around that injured area thereby inhibiting healing to occur.
New research is shedding some light on this much debated topic. In fact the pioneer of the long used acronym for healing, RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation), has come forth against their old outdated research. What is now known is ice slows healing, but it still can provide pain relief. While heat may help promote the healing process and assist with pain relief as well, it doesn’t speed up the healing process at all. In fact most research now indicates Ice and heat should only be used sparingly for pain relief. It is recommended to use Ice for 10 minutes max, remove ice for 20 minutes, and repeat as needed only for the first 6 hours of an injury. After those 6 hours, ice has been shown to delay healing in that injury. With heat usage, the same time frame should be applied.
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