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Sharp Health News

Should you use heat or ice to manage pain? (infographic)

Dec. 17, 2015

Whether you are a weekend warrior, have stiff joints from arthritis or pull a muscle while working around the house, you are hurting and want relief. The decision to use heat therapy or cold therapy depends on injury type and other health conditions. Natalie Torre, a physical therapist with Sharp Memorial Hospital, has tips for when to use heat or ice to manage pain.

Should you use heat or ice to manage pain? (infographic). Should you use heat or ice for managing pain? You’ve injured yourself. It probably doesn’t require a trip to the doctor, but you’re hurting and want some relief. Should you grab the heating pad or the frozen peas? When to use heat therapy. Use of heat opens blood vessels, allowing blood to flow to injured areas while reducing tightness and pain in stiff muscles or joints. Heat therapy is good for a muscle spasm, an old injury that has flared up, decreasing joint stiffness and relaxation. However, heat therapy is not good for a new injury, as heat can increase inflammation. Wait at least a week before applying heat. Heat is also not good for active infections, pain associated with multiple sclerosis and on children under six months of age. To apply heat, use a heating pad on medium setting or wet a washcloth with warm water to make a compress. Monitor the treated area closely to ensure pain does not occur and remove the heat source immediately if it does. Apply heat for no more than 15 minutes per hour. When to use ice therapy. Use of cold slows blood flow to an injured area, numbing the region while reducing bleeding, pain and swelling. Ice therapy is good for a new injury, a new surgical incision, muscle soreness or bumps and bruises. However, ice therapy is not good for any area in which sensation is impaired, for pain associated with diabetic neuropathy or Reynaud’s disease, or on children under six months of age. To apply ice, cover a bag of ice or a frozen compress in a thin towel, and apply it for no more than 20 minutes per hour. Monitor the treated area closely for increased redness or loss of sensation and remove the ice source immediately if either symptom occurs. A quick tip is to use ice on a new injury (within a week) and use heat on a recurring injury. Alternate ice and heat therapy after a week to maximize results. Staying physically active is important for your health, says Natalie Torre, physical therapist with Sharp Memorial Hospital. To prevent injuring yourself, perform a five-minute warm-up that will get your heart pumping (marching in place, jumping jacks, arm circles, etc.), then end your workout with a 30-second stretch of all the muscle groups you used. If a new injury occurs, remember to RICE – rest, ice, compress and elevate. If an old injury flares up, try some heat to relax the muscles. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition.

View the printable version of this infographic.

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