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Battle of the Medicine Cabinet Treatments: Ice Vs. Heat

A common question I get in my practice is whether it is better to use ice or heat when treating an injury. The simple answer is that both ice and heat can be beneficial in treating an injury at different times. But determining which one to use can prove quite confusing. Following are my top-line guidelines:

  • Ice is generally used after an initial injury to help prevent inflammation, swelling and pain. It can also be used to treat a “flare up” of an older injury following physical activity. Ice cools the injured muscle and tissue by limiting blood flow and provides a direct numbing effect to sensitive nerves.
  • Heat – in the form of a heating pad, warm towel, or hot shower or bath – is best used to treat older injuries that have begun to heal. Since heat improves blood flow to an area, it is used to “soften up” sore, stiff muscles or joints and “warm up” the injured area prior to exercise or activity.

As a general rule-of-thumb, consider applying heat before exercise to encourage blood flow, thereby allowing the injured area to move more freely. Following exercise, use ice to treat any swelling or irritation the activity may have caused.

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