Ice, Heat, Both or... Neither?

If you ask just about anyone what is the best way to decrease pain and aid recovery you will probably hear something along the lines of “You need to ice for X amount of time” or, “alternate ice and heat throughout the day.” Those options were very standard for any form of pain relief or recovery and they seemed to work. At least in order to reduce initial pain.

However, newer research is showing that utilizing ice, heat or a combination can actually increase the time it takes to heal and increase the chances of follow up injuries.

For the purposes of this blog I will be using the terms “inflammatory agents” as a catch all for all of the inflammatory markers, blood cells, chemicals and processes that occur in the body in response to

an injury.

The reason we use ice is simple: the ice causes compression of vessels, thus pushing out inflammatory agents and the cooling aspect “shrinks” tissues causing temporary pain relief.

The problem with this is that we actually need those inflammatory agents in order for healing to properly occur. They are our bodies mechanism for healing. When we use ice, those agents aren’t allowed to perform their job, thus limiting their effectiveness and prolonging the injury.

As for heat we get the opposite effect. The heat expands vessels in the region and brings in more inflammatory agents, often times more than the body can handle and use efficiently. This creates an over abundance of inflammation and can cause increased stiffness, soreness and swelling.

This is typically why people who use heat state, “The heat took my pain away, but the next morning I could hardly move”.

I’m sure at this point you are asking, “so if I can’t use ice and I can’t use heat, what do I use?”

The answer is MOVEMENT! By continuing to move the affected area in a PAIN FREE range of motion we are facilitating healing and basically taking the concepts of ice and heat and allowing our bodies to perform them properly. By moving in a pain free range of motion we are allowing our bodies to bring in the proper agents to the affected region and are also clearing the already used or damaged agents out of the region.

An easy example is a baseball pitcher. For decades it has been “ice after you throw to prevent injury.” Now what is being taught is to get a light shoulder workout in after throwing and the results are


Ice and heat are staples in most realms for pain reduction and recovery, and I’m not saying don’t use them, however if it’s possible try using some gentle range of motion exercises and limit the icing to a maximum of 5 minutes per hour for 2 hours as icing does have pain reduction benefits within that time frame.

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