Did you hurt your knee while playing basketball last night? Or do you have constant neck tension due to a desk-bound job? What’s the best way to get pain relief at home? Ice packs and heating pads are among the most commonly used therapies in self care and professional treatments for pain relief. Hot and cold therapies are inexpensive, noninvasive and carry minimal risks if used properly. But how do you know which is right one to use for your specific injury? Which one you use depends on whether the pain is new or recurring.
Ice for Acute Pain/Injury
Ice treatment is most commonly used to soothe pain from a sudden acute injury. This means the sprains, strains, bumps, and bruises that occur during sports activities or life in general. If you have had an injury within the last 48 hours, and it’s red or feels hot and swollen, then you should be using ice. Cold slows down blood flow to an injury, thereby reducing pain signals, swelling and muscle spasms.
Ideally you should apply ice within 1 hour of the pain setting in (for example if you stumble and sprain your ankle or tweak your back while trying to move something too heavy for you).
A good regimen: Apply the cold pack for 15 minutes, every 4 to 6 hours as needed. Do this for up to 48 hours. (If you still need pain relief at 48 hours, then switch to heat below).
Homemade Cold Pack
Make an ice pack by filling a 1 quart plastic freezer bag with 1 cup rubbing alcohol and 2 cups of water (food coloring optional). Try to get as much of the air out as possible when you seal it. You can put this bag inside of another bag to prevent leaks. Place your pack in the freezer for at least an hour. When it’s ready place a towel between the gel pack and the bare skin to avoid burning.
Heat for Chronic Pain
Heat treatments are used to ease chronic conditions by helping to relax and loosen muscles. Heat also opens up blood vessels which increases blood flow and oxygen/nutrient supplies to muscles. This helps to reduce pain and stiffness in joints and promotes healing. Applying superficial heat to your body can improve the flexibility of tendons and ligaments and reduce muscle spasms.
You should apply heat after the acute inflammation pain associated with the area has passed (The red, warm and tender feeling). Otherwise, you could worsen the swelling in that area. The heat treatment should be warm by not so hot that it burns you.
A good regimen: heat in the form of a heating pad or soak in a hot bath for no longer than 20 minutes.
Homemade Heat Pack
Make a moist heat wrap by filling a knee sock with dry, uncooked rice, stopping 2 inches from the top. Close tightly with a string or twine, then microwave for 2 min. Lay it over your neck and reheat when it cools.
So, to recap, ice is for injuries and heat is for muscle tension. Ice decreases the amount of inflammation and swelling that occurs in a new injury. Heat is best for recurring pain because it will bring blood to the area and promote healing and flexibility. If in doubt as to whether to apply heat or cold to an injury, call your health care provider’s office.
**Don’t apply ice or heat for longer than 20 minutes unless recommended by a Doctor.
**Don’t apply heat to open wounds or if you have an active infection.