I get asked quite frequently whether to use ice or heat on an aching joint. When in doubt, use ice but use it properly. I have outlined protocols for icing below. That is not to say that there are not times when heat is appropriate, but icing is almost always beneficial if done right, whereas heat can cause problems on a new or inflamed injury.
The rule of thumb is that if the injury is acute or new within the last 6 weeks or if it is an exacerbation of an injury, use ice. Heat is good for loosening up sore muscles and stiff joints. If you need to get things moving, heating for 20 minutes can be very therapeutic. Be careful though. If you heat an inflamed joint, it will feel better while it is on but the heat will increase the inflammation and not only cause more discomfort but also prolong your healing. As a precaution, I typically recommend using heat only if you are going to be moving around (ie. never before or during bed time). If you are going to use heat before bed, follow it up with ice. That way you won’t wake up feeling like you were hit by a train.
Icing is not as simple as just putting something cold on you for a little while. If done properly, it can be extremely beneficial. If done improperly, it will have little to no benefit. So, here are the rules to using ice properly.
1. Cover the affected area. Not using enough ice will not drive the inflammation away enough to make it worth the pain of icing. A nice big ice pack for big areas like the back, legs and arms is critical. Conversely, for feet and hands an ice pack might not be good at all. I usually recommend an ice bucket if the body part fits. ***I will explain those protocols below.
2. Make sure the ice penetrates. Too often, people will put a bath towel between the ice pack and the affected area. Their excuse is usually that it is too cold. They are missing the point. It is supposed to be cold! You should only use a paper towel or thin t-shirt in between.
3. Let it go numb. If the area you are icing doesn’t get numb you really haven’t done it right. When icing you should feel it get cold which should then start to burn. (Be careful not to get an actual ice burn. On rare occasion if the ice pack is too cold and it is up against sensitive skin it can burn the skin. This shouldn’t happen with most ice packs and if you have a paper towel between.) After the burning feeling, the area should start to ache until it goes numb. Once it is numb, you are done!
4. Never ice longer than 20 minutes. After 20 minutes the body sends out a signal that the area is developing frostbite and will send more blood to the area. As icing helps to drive blood/inflammation away, sending more blood in is a bad thing. If after 20 minutes the area never got numb, take it off and wait 40 minutes to ice again.
5. Wait 40 minutes before you can ice again. Make sure the affected area is back to regular body temperature before you shock it again with ice.
***Ice Bucket Protocol: Use an ice bucket for ankles/feet and hands/wrists. This is by far the best way to drive out inflammation from these areas.
1. Get a bucket big enough.
2. Put as much ice in it that will cover your affected extremity.
3. Fill it with water to the same level.
4. Cover fingers or toes with a sock.
5. Immerse the extremity.
6. Keep it moving gently to keep the water immediately surrounding from warming up.
7. Ice until numb (usually around 5 minutes).
8. Repeat once the limb is back to body temperature.