Which is better, heat or ice? We frequently hear patients ask us this question. The fact is, not-one is better than the other, but instead the choice to use heat or ice would be dependent on the scenario of the injury.
Heat therapy increases the temperature of the skin and adjacent tissue. When heated, the local blood vessels dilate resulting in an increase in blood flow to the injured tissues. An increase in blood flow to damaged tissue promotes healing by supplying the tissue with more oxygen and nutrients. Heat therapy also provides pain relief by interrupting pain signal pathways to the brain. Additionally, heat can improve soft tissue elasticity and improve joint and muscle range of motion.
Cold therapy (or cryotherapy) on the other hand decreases the temperature of the skin and adjacent tissue. When cooled, the local blood vessels constrict and blood flow to the surrounding tissue is decreased. This reduction in blood flow slows down the rate of inflammation and swelling response following an injury. Additionally, at low temperatures, the conduction of pain signals across nerves can be reduced which lessens the sensation of pain, this can result in a numbing effect.
Heat and cold therapy also useful could also result in complications if used inappropriately. Cold therapy if applied excessively or in an inappropriate manner may result in skin burns, frostbites and nerve damage. Likewise heat therapy could result in skin burns, ulcerations and increased inflammation if used inappropriately. It is important to be aware if you have any conditions that may result in an adverse reaction as well as continually monitor your skin during the use of these therapy modalities to ensure there is no excessive redness.
In summary, we recommend using cold therapy for acute injuries with swelling and inflammation (i.e. that have occurred in the past two weeks), and heat therapy for general muscle or joint pains or stiffness. If you have any questions regarding your injury or appropriate application of heat or cold therapy, please do not hesitate to call our clinic at (02) 9681 3467.