Ice packs and heat packs count among the most used home remedies for painful injuries. However, we often use these powerful healing aids without really knowing whether what we are doing is the right thing for our injuries. What really is the best thing for you – ice or heat?

The Role of Blood Flow in Recovery

First, it’s important to understand the role of blood flow in the recovery process. Your body is constantly circulating blood. This blood both distributes oxygen, nutrients and warmth, while at the same time removing toxins. When you injure an area, your body has an ‘inflammation’ reaction. This sees your body reacting to the injury by increasing blood flow to the area in an internal effort to remove foreign bodies and begin the healing process.

When to Use an Ice Pack

Treatment with an ice pack is usually administered in cases of acute injuries which have local inflammation. Inflammation is triggered by sporting injuries, overuse injuries such as tendonitis, deep bruising or even when you ‘put your back out’. The application of an ice pack reduces the flow of blood to the injured area, which in turn causes a reduction of local inflammation. By helping your body reduce inflammation there is less pressure on the region, which reduces pain and helps your healing process.

The most common use for an ice pack is on an ankle sprain. This can be really effective. If you put an ice pack on an injury as soon as the injury occurs, it helps minimize the inflammation. As the inflammation subsides, pain is reduced as well.

An ice pack is best used when you have had an injury in the past 48 hours and there is a lot of inflammation around the injured area.

Application of an ice pack may also be useful in chronic injuries, especially in cases where inflamed joints may be causing problems with mobility. Since icing an injured area can help control inflammation, conditions such as arthritis, can also be relieved by applying cold packs to joints.

How to Use an Ice Pack

Icing is most effective within 48 hours of an injury. After 48 hours, the benefits of using ice decline. An ice massage can be performed by applying ice directly to the injury. It is important to move the ice around and never allow it to sit in the same place as this can burn the skin. Ice should never be applied directly. Always wrap ice in a clean towel or a plastic bag.

While icing, it’s preferable to keep the injured area elevated above the heart. This acts to further stem blood flow and reduce inflammation. Never ice an area for more than 15 minutes at a time as the reduced local blood flow can lead to conditions such as frostbite. Consecutive applications of ice packs should be timed at least an hour apart.

Precautions When Using Ice Packs

An ice pack should always be used on recent injuries or on injuries where there is a lot of inflammation. Be aware that applying ice to which have a lot of nerve endings (such as a bone fracture site) can be painful and cause complications. It’s therefore recommended that you do not apply ice to these areas.

Injuries in that require blood flow such as broken bones, should not be treated with ice packs because applying cold to the injured area can reduce the blood flow to the injured area, which slows recovery.

In the neck region a cold cloth should be used instead of ice, as ice will significantly reduce essential blood flow to your head.

When to Use Heat Packs

Heat packs are ideal for use on chronic conditions. Despite popular belief, the term ‘chronic condition’ refers to an injury which has been present for at least three months. A heat pack can help dilate (or open up) blood vessels, therefore stimulating the blood flow to a particular area. Heat packs are perfect when dealing with areas where there is a lot of muscular tension like in the lower back, shoulders or neck region. Heat can also be used for injuries caused by overuse.

Heat should not be used immediately after an injury has occurred, especially one in which there is inflammation, as this will do more harm than good.

In conditions like osteoarthritis, where there is stiffness in the joints due to cold temperatures, a heat pack can be applied to provide relief.

How to Apply Heat

Heat can be applied using a heat pack. You can also fashion a homemade heat pack by heating a towel and applying it to the painful areas of your body. To avoid localised inflammation, heat should not be applied to the body for more than 20 minutes.

Precautions When Using Heat Packs

Heat should be applied very carefully in order to avoid any burns to your skin. Heating pads or hot towels should never be used for extended periods of time. Also, never use a heating pad or any kind of heat application while sleeping. Prolonged heating of an area can increase the risk of inflammation which will make you feel stiff again the next morning.

Using Heat and Ice Packs Together

Both heat and ice packs can sometimes be used together in cases where there is lots of inflammation or muscle spasms. If the muscle spasms and inflammation are located around each other, you can start off by applying a heat pack for 5-10 minutes, alternating with a cold pack for the same amount of time. This will help contain inflammation, while treating the tightness caused due to the muscle spasms. When combining heat and ice packs, always start and end with the heat pack

What happens if You’re Still Unsure?

If you’re still not confident in choosing whether to use an ice pack or a heat pack, simply give your GP or osteopath a quick call and they’ll be able to help you.