Pain in any area of the body can be very annoying and discomforting. The most common treatment for any sort of pain is application of heat and/or ice. However, it is important to understand what works best for pain relief whether it is ice or heat. Both these methods work differently to calm down the pain in an area of the body.
While both heat and ice therapy is good in providing pain relief, the question arises as to when to use ice and when to use heat for pain relief. Also, many patients enquire as to which therapy works the best, ice or heat for relief from pain. This article gives an overview of which therapy works better, ice or heat.
Ice or Heat? Which is Better for Pain Relief?
Heat improves the blood flow in the affected area of the body and provides essential nutrients and helps relief pain. Hence, heat works best for morning stiffness and to get the sore muscles ready for a morning workout or other activities around the house.(3) Heat can be applied at the injured area of the body by using a warm water bottle and applying it over the affected area.
Ice Therapy is Better for Short-Term or Acute Pain
To answer this question, which is better, it is important to have knowledge of which therapy to use and when to use it. Ice is often used for fresh injuries or acute injuries, like being hit by a ball while playing sports like football or ice hockey. Heat is mostly used for chronic or long term pain like when the muscles become stiff after prolonged use and start aching.[1,3]
On the other hand, ice works by slowing down the blood flow to the affected muscles thereby calming down the pain and swelling. Ice is often best for short-term pain, like that from a sprain or a strain. Ice therapy is done by wrapping a few ice cubes in a towel and applying it over the injured area of the body.
Icing works best to calm down superficial tissues that get inflamed and swollen after an injury. (3) As the inflammatory process continues, ice helps in calming down the pain that is a result of the inflammatory process working to treat the injury. Some examples where ice can be of use is a pulled muscle, patellofemoral pain or iliotibial band syndrome.
Heat Therapy is Better for Pain from Chronic Injuries
Heat works best for more chronic injuries or repetitive stress injuries. If a muscle of the body gets injured as a result of which it is consistently stiff and achy, then applying heat makes the muscles loose and calms down the pain. Ice can be used best for cases of back pain and calms down some of the stress that an individual feels as a result of the pain.
When To Use Which Therapy (Ice/Heat)?
The question arises as to whether to ice or use heat for muscle tear. In such cases, ice is always the best. However, there is a cap for how many days you can actually use ice as a mode of treatment for muscle tear. Ice should only be used for a maximum of three to four days after the injury and that too only if there is a proven diagnosis of a muscle injury.
A muscle injury occurs as a result of trauma incurred while performing activities like heavy lifting and pushing on a repetitive basis resulting in a sudden onset of pain. If there is a clear evidence of a muscle tear then ice should initially be used to calm down the pain and inflammation followed by heat therapy for relief.
Ice Therapy & Heat Therapy: Both Equally Effective for Pain Relief
Now coming to the pertinent question as to which is better, ice or heat. Both of these treatment modalities have roughly the same efficacy when it comes to treating pain and inflammation.
Both of these therapies are only temporary solutions and ultimately more aggressive treatments will have to be done for complete relief of the symptoms including pain.
The reason ice or heat therapy is considered as first line of treatment for most painful conditions is because they provide initial pain relief before more potent treatments are given. Moreover, both ice and heat therapy are safe, easy to use and do not cost any money in comparison to other forms of treatments.
In conclusion, there is no way to tell whether ice or heat is better for pain relief. Both of these treatments have roughly the same benefits. It is basically the choice of the patient and the nature of the injury, which decides whether ice or heat should be used for treatment of painful conditions.
As an example, it you are already flushed out and do not require any more heat, then ice is the way to go. On the other hand, if the weather is cold and ice may increase the discomfort, then heat should be used as a mode of treatment. The bottom line is if an individual does not feel that ice is effective then switching to heat is suggested and vice versa.