As soon as people find out that I am a physical therapist, they inevitably start telling me about their aches and pains AND they ask me the BIG question: “When should I use ice and when should I use heat?” It makes for great cocktail conversation!
Here is the skinny…
Ice should be used immediately after an injury and for the 48-hour period following an injury. It should only be applied for 10 minutes at a time. Ice will help to decrease inflammation.
Heat should be used for more chronic problems and can be applied for up to 20 minutes at a time. Heat will help to minimize muscle tightness and spasms.
Now, here is where things get a little more complicated. If you are having an exacerbation of a chronic problem, then ice is appropriate. If you have any orthopedic problem ending in “itis” then ice is best, especially after you participate in any activity that makes your “itis” unhappy. For example, If you have shoulder bursitis or knee (patellar tendon) tendonitis and you have just finished playing tennis, ice that knee and shoulder after your game.
Another exemption to the rules: If you are using those “THERMAcare” heat packs that you can get at any drug store nowadays, you can heat for longer than 20 minutes. These packs are great to use while you’re sleeping and will stay warm for up to 6-8 hours. I often recommend these disposable heat packs to patients with chronic neck or back pain.
Now that you are up on the heat/ice issue, if we ever meet at a cocktail party you won’t have to ask me about that. But I would be more than happy to hear all about those aches and pain! As long as I can tell you about mine too!