Tip Sheet: When To Use Heat vs Ice

Heat Or Ice? It’s time to settle the debate. It is pretty simple, ice is more appropriate for certain situations and heat also has its moment to shine. Let’s get right into the details of how to appropriately use both heat and ice.

When is ICE the Best Choice?

Ice, or a cold pack, is commonly used following trauma such as surgery to help reduce swelling and decrease pain. Ice is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it closes off blood vessels and can help to decrease swelling. Ice can and should be applied following acute injuries, such as an ankle sprain, in the first 24-48 hours when swelling is present. It also has numbing effect and thus helps to decrease pain.

How Long Should Ice Be Applied?

The quick answer is roughly 15-20 minutes, but this varies for each individual. There are 4 basic phases of ice that you will experience after you put the ice pack on:

  1.       Cold – Initially when the ice is placed on the body it will feel cold.
  2.       Burning – The next phase that people will feel is a burning sensation.
  3.       Aching – This is almost a painful ache as the ice is on the body longer.
  4.       Numbness – At this time the ice should be removed from the body part.

 Avoid using ice and consult your doctor or physical therapist if you have any of the following conditions: Raynaud’s Disease; Areas of decreased sensation; Rheumatoid Arthritis; Cold uticaria (cold allergy)

When is HEAT the Best Choice?

Heat can be used for more chronic or long-standing injuries. As opposed to ice, heat is a vasodilator meaning it opens the blood vessels, and helps to INCREASE blood flow to an area. Therefore, you don’t want to use heat immediately after an injury when swelling is present as this will increase inflammation and delay healing.

Examples of when to use heat include muscle spasms, arthritis conditions, and after the acute and subacute phases of surgery have passed, such as when trying to stretch to gain range of motion.

How Long Should Heat Be Applied?

Heat can be applied for anywhere between 15-20 minutes. If you feel as though the heating pad is too warm, make sure to add an extra towel layer so you don’t burn your skin.

**Avoid using heat and consult your doctor or physical therapist if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Immediately after surgery, or when swelling is present.
  • During the acute phase following an injury.
  • Areas of decreased sensation, unless you can closely monitor and observe the area to make sure the heat is not causing tissue damage.
  • Area of local malignancy (cancer).
  • An area where there is a known DVT or blood clot.

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By |2021-06-17T18:49:15+00:00June 17th, 2021|Helpful Tips|Comments Off on Tip Sheet: When To Use Heat vs Ice

About the Author:

Mary Smith, PT
Mary Smith, PT is currently practicing as a Physical Therapist in our Baldwinsville Location.
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