The Pain Debate: Ice vs. Heat

ice cube arguing with a flame of fire

When you’re in the thick of a debate, sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.  You have your position.  Your opponent, the opposite one.  Both sides of the discussion passionately defend their respective positions, often at the expense of logic.  The objective is to come out on top.

But sometimes what you’re debating needn’t be debated at all.  Why?

Because both positions are completely valid, for entirely different reasons.

In the instance of the pain debate:  ice vs. heat, that’s certainly true.  The truth of the matter is simply this – both serve pain in different ways.  Both are the correct answer in different circumstances.

Ice (cryotherapy).

Inflammation is best treated by cryotherapy – the application of cold (ice).  Without turning to pharmaceuticals, icing a fresh injury is the most effective way to reduce the swelling and pain associated with inflammation.

Icing works most effectively on the most immediate layers of the soft tissue, skin and subcutaneous muscle.  Its application has a numbing effect which immediately reduces sensation – including pain.

Heat (thermotherapy).

Thermotherapy is the flip side of the temperature coin.  Applying heat is called for when the pain is coming from a deeper source.  Muscles which are tired and stressed and internal trigger points relax when heat is applied.

Heat is also the answer for chronic pain.  By relaxing muscles and calming the body (pro-tip – it doesn’t have to work as hard when it’s warm), stress is reduced and pain, relieved.  A sore, stiff back or neck can be effectively treated with heat, for example.

For how many years have the hot water bottle and heating pad been used?  Many, because these are effective pain management tools.

Proceed with caution.

The foregoing should put to rest the pain debate:  ice vs. heat.  There is no debate.  There is only the proper use of each to treat various types of pain.  But don’t confuse their functions.

Applying heat for inflammation will make matters worse (for obvious reasons).  You want to ease it, not exacerbate it.  For problems in trigger points and muscles, the application of ice will only make them worse.  Think about your body’s first reaction to a cold winter’s day – tension, right?

That’s why if you have neck or back pain, you shouldn’t be treating it with ice.  Cryotherapy will only make the problem worse.  The same is true of injuries and inflammation.  Inflammation is a type of heat that’s already present in the body.  Treating heat with heat isn’t about to work.

When you put your finger under cold water after burning it, the pain is soothed.  That’s because cold treats inflammation.

Remember:  cold for inflammation.  Heat for muscular pain and tension.  Fresh injuries – cold.  Chronic pain – hot.  Always proceed with caution when administering self-therapies.  Incorrect application can make the pain worse and you don’t want that.

43rd Street Medical – pain relief specialists.

We put together this post because a lot of our patients ask us about the pain debate:  ice vs. heat.  Contact us for integrated pain relief and multi-disciplinarian care that works.