Ice or Heat: What to Use and When

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Ice or heat?So you’re hiking a trail or going for a run or trying out new ice skates, when it happens. You twist your ankle, or step incorrectly, or fall and hurt yourself. You’re now left with a painful foot and need to take care of it. Do you reach for an ice pack or heat the injury? Ice and heat are complete opposites, but both are used to treat injuries and pain. The catch is that they have opposite effects in your lower limbs, and they aren’t necessarily interchangeable. At the wrong time, heat or ice could make your pain worse. So which do you choose, and when?

Though there are exceptions, the general rule of thumb is that ice is used for injury first aid, while heat is best for a chronic problem. Ice discourages swelling and inflammation, while heat improves blood flow and relaxes your tissues. Both are helpful for healing, but at different stages of your recovery.

Immediately after you injure your foot, whether you sprain it, develop a stress fracture, strain a muscle, or anything else, the tissues start to swell. Fluids leak, causing the edema, and inflammation flares up. Ice therapy cools everything, discouraging inflammation. This can also cause your soft tissues to contract, decreasing swelling and preventing it from getting worse. Heat, on the other hand, would increase the blood flow (and fluid) around the damage, and possibly exacerbate the inflammation.

Chronic injuries are different. They are problems that developed over time, or aren’t healing. This can include old or repeated sprains or strains, sore muscles, arthritic joints, and more. Heat therapy relaxes tightened tissues so they loosen and become more flexible. It also increases blood flow, bringing your limbs much-needed oxygen, nutrients, and healing factors. All of this can ease tension and help your body recover. In this situation, ice would only tighten your already stiff and painful feet even more.

Knowing when to use heat or ice can be important for alleviating pain and helping your body heal properly. Once you know the difference between the two therapies, it’s not hard to figure out what your foot needs. Even so, ice and heat are only temporary treatments. Our team at Podiatry Associates, P.C. can help you heal the underlying tissue damage. Make an appointment online, or call (303) 805-5156 to reach our Castle Pines, Parker, and Cherry Creek, CO, offices.

Dr. Cynthia Oberholtzer-Classen, DPM
Founder and Owner of Podiatry Associates, PC
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