Fiona McMahon, DPT.
What’s better, heat or ice? This is a question that most medical/health type professionals get all the time. The answer is, it depends. Both have fabulous benefits for different sets of circumstances. Let’s explore these cheap, safe and effective pain relievers.
In the biz, ( no one calls physical therapy “the biz” yet, but if I try hard enough, it may stick) we call heat, thermotherapy. Fancy, right? Thermotherapy is great for pain that is a result of a trigger point, or muscle spasm. Think deep neck, back pain, or pelvic pain. It’s great for menstrual cramps and can create a nice soothing effect.
For any active inflammation or infection however, heat can be harmful and can actually make it worse. You do not want to place heat over joints affected by autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis. It’s also not good for new, fresh injuries, like a muscle strain or a injury from a fall. Heat is really good for chronic long standing pain conditions.
Heat comes in types, dry and moist. Dry is the kind that’s emitted from like an electric heating pad or a microwaved heating pad. Sometimes people may find that dry heat, dries out the skin. Moist heat comes from things like moist towels or moist heating pads (these are the kind we use in our clinic). Moist heat tends to penetrate deeper into the muscles.
Safety Considerations for Heat:
- Don’t over heat. Sounds simple, but in the throes of severe pain, many people may find themselves with the more is better mantra. It’s not.
- Don’t apply to open wounds, on individuals with peripheral vascular disease, deep vein thrombosis, or on people with reduced sensation or ability to remove the hot pack.
Physical therapists have a fancy name for this one too. It’s cryotherapy. Sounds super futuristic doesn’t it? Ice is awesome. It really is. It is great for acute (recent) injuries like a sprain or a strain. There are actually studies that show that ice within 36 hours of injury speeds recovery better than heat. Ice can reduce pain in the area it is applied, reduce guarding and spasm, and reduce swelling.
Safety Considerations for Cold:
- Never use on people with reduced sensation, ie. Raynauds, actively healing wounds, circulatory issues, or hypertension
- Less is more. Keep cold packs on for 20-30 minutes once every 2 hours on newly injured body parts. Keeping the ice pack on for longer can cause increased blood flow to the area which will reduce the helpful effects of the ice.
When in doubt as to if you should use cryotherapy or thermotherapy, consult with your physical therapist or healthcare provider. At Beyond Basics we treat injuries beyond those to the pelvic floor and we can help with your injury questions. You can also find a physical therapist with the APTA’s PT finder tool.