Ice or Heat – Which one do I use?

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One of the most frequent questions I am asked by patients every week is ‘So do I use heat or ice for my neck pain?’

The answer is ice!!!

inflammation pic

Why ice?

With any injury, sprain or strain where a joint or muscle has been stressed to the extreme and causes pain and dysfunction, then ice should be applied immediately. The instant effect of ice is to reduce the swelling and inflammation around the injured area. This reduces the pain and discomfort, allowing for easier range of motion in the joint and general function.

An example I use in my clinic is:

If you were to sprain your ankle and the joint became black and blue, swollen and extremely painful then you would rest, ice and take the pressure of it. The problem with the neck and back is that there are so many smaller joints either side of the spine that can become inflamed due to everyday activities, work, posture, sport and exercise. Sometimes these smaller joints do not appear to be as severe as maybe an ankle would present.

We may not need to rest or take time off work with back and neck pain, so we simply continue as normal, thus aggravating the inflamed joints and irritated muscles.

My best advice is to listen to your body when it tells you something is wrong or gives you a hint that something is brewing. Lastly, always use ICE instead of heat with inflammation type injuries or conditions as the heat can actually make things worse is some cases.

To summarise, ice is for injuries — calming down damaged superficial tissues that are inflamed, hot, red and swollen. The inflammation process is healthy, normal and natural, but can also be incredibly painful and so ice can be used as an effective form of pain management.

Heat is for muscles, chronic pain, and stress — taking the edge off symptoms of muscle ache and stiffness, which have many unclear causes.

Tips for icing injuries

Put an ice-pack on the injured area for 15 minutes, before returning it to the freezer for 15 minutes. Repeat this three times. If the pain persists, make sure to get it checked out by a medical professional as it could be more serious than you initially realised.