I have many patients asking me when they should use ice versus heat for their pain or injuries. This is a really great question and there are a few simple rules of thumb to follow.
Ice should always be used for acute problems. This means anything that has happened within the last 24-72 hours. During this time after an injury or flare-up, inflammation is at its highest. The best way to calm down and eliminate inflammation is to apply ice. This will slow down the blood flow to the area and reduce the swelling and heat. Ice is also great for migraine headaches and bruising.
Heat is best used for more chronic conditions. This is something that has been around for quite some time, such as arthritis. When using heat, it will increase blood flow to the area and help loosen up tight joints. This is also great for muscle tension. The increased blood flow will help the muscles to relax and decrease soreness. You should never use heat however on areas that are numb or have lost sensation. Those with diabetes should also avoid heat as well. Never use heat over an area with bruising or swelling.
With both ice and heat, they should never be applied directly to the skin. Always use a towel or cloth between. Each should be applied to the area for about 20 minutes and can be reapplied about 40 minutes later.
If you are ever in doubt of which you should use, stick with ICE!