Whether you’re struggling with chronic joint pain or just wrenched your back, you need pain relief now. And while you’re waiting for pain relievers to kick in – whether they’re natural or pharmaceutical – you can get started on easing that pain with ice or heat.
The trick is in knowing when to use which… because getting that wrong can make everything worse.
Ice works better for injuries because it numbs pain by constricting blood vessels, which slows blood flow to the affected area. This action also limits inflammation and bruising. Use ice when you see swelling, redness, bruising.
Heat, which is best for chronic pain, does just the opposite: It increases blood flow to the area, and that helps relax tense muscles and soothe aching joints. Use heat when your pain persists for a long period of time.
Basically, ice works best for new and acute injuries, while heat works best for chronic conditions… but, of course, as with all “rules,” exceptions apply.
Sprains and strains: Start with ice to decrease inflammation and swelling while numbing the pain. After the inflammation is resolved – which can take days – switch to heat to reduce stiffness.
Headache pain: Cold masks or frozen washcloths across your forehead, eyes, and temples can tame the throbbing pain of migraines and tension headaches. If your headache was brought on by neck spasms, a moist heat wrap around your neck can calm those, and keep your headache from returning.
Chronic arthritis pain: Use heat (dry or moist) to soothe chronically stiff, aching joints.
Acute arthritis or gout flare-ups: Ice numbs the pain of occasional agonizing flare-ups, and calms the acute inflammation that comes with them.
Whichever works best for your situation – apply the heat or ice for 20 minutes, then take at least a 20 minute break before reapplying.
Caution: Wrong Way!
Never use heat with new acute injuries – it increases inflammation and delays healing.
Don’t use ice on muscles in spasm – it can increase tension and make those spasms worse.
Wait before using ice when you’re shivering cold or heat when you’re sweltering hot – excess heat or cold can act like a threat warning to your brain, and that can increase pain signals.
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