Heating Pad or Ice Pack: Which Should You Reach For?

There are approximately 640 muscles, 206 bones, 900-plus ligaments, and 4,000-plus tendons in the human body. Even if you lead a sedentary lifestyle, you’re bound to sprain, strain, bump, or bruise some of them from time to time. When you experience pain that’s bothersome but doesn’t quite meet the threshold for making an appointment with your orthopedic doctor, you probably head to your medicine chest and take an aspirin or acetaminophen tablet. If the pain continues you may seek relief from a heating pad or an ice pack. Before you administer hot or cold therapy, make sure you’re using the right one. Otherwise, you could do more harm than good.

Cold Therapy

An ice pack or cold compress is best suited soon after you become injured or notice pain. Cold helps relieve the pain of inflammation and swelling from recent trauma, such as a sprained ankle/muscle or muscle/joint pain immediately after exercising. Additionally, if you’re in pain that’s associated swelling or a red “angry” body part, applying cold constricts blood vessels, alleviating swelling and reducing the risk of bruising.

How to Apply Cold Therapy

Never place ice directly on skin; wrap it in cloth first. The sooner you apply cold therapy after an injury, the more effective it will be. Apply cold for no more than 20 minutes at a time and don’t use it on areas where you have limited circulation.

Heat Therapy

Cold is ideal for use immediately after an injury occurs, but heat is most effective to treat chronic conditions. Heat provides pain relief by relaxing and soothing muscles, stimulating blood flow, and alleviating muscle spasms. Reach for a heating pad or long-lasting heat wrap to relieve ongoing muscle pain, joint stiffness, and arthritis pain.

How to Apply Heat

Unlike cold therapy, that’s most effective after exercise or strenuous activity, heat therapy is most effective before rigorous activity. Whether you are using a heating pad or hot water bottle, it’s usually a good idea to wrap it in a towel or cloth before applying it your skin to prevent burns. As with ice, a good rule of thumb is to limit heat application to 20-minute sessions (unless you are using a low-temperature heat wrap designed for long-term use).

Before self-treating with heat or cold, it’s important to understand when to use each one. Applying cold to muscle spasms can aggravate them, and applying heat to inflammation can make it worse. If you experience pain that continues and isn’t relieved by over-the-counter pain relievers and heat or cold therapy, you should see a doctor. Contact us at Greater Austin Orthopaedics. Our South Austin, Southwest Austin, North Austin, and Lockhart sports medicine clinics specialize in pain and injuries related to bones and connective tissues. Our skilled physicians will use our state-of-the-art diagnostics equipment and experience to pinpoint the cause of your discomfort and get you back to pain-free living as quickly as possible. For pain that persists, call Greater Austin Orthopaedics today to schedule a consultation.

Written by GAOrtho Admin on Friday June 17, 2016
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