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Most of the times we see patients coming in for the first time, around 95% of the time the patient has used heat therapy to help relieve their pain. To define exactly what we mean by this, heat therapy could be anything from using a heat compress, heated rice pack, a hot water bottle to taking a hot shower or a warm bath. A warm shower is certainly going to loosen off the muscles and going to increase the blood flow through areas of your body that the water hits. If you regularly experience muscle spasms, the immediate relief of a hot shower, or applying heat therapy in general, can feel comforting as it’s going to relax those muscles. So when it comes to pain relief, is Heat or Ice therapy more effective? 

However, it’s important to understand when to use heat and when to use ice, because there are specific times when using either of these approaches can be helpful. If you’ve had a niggle or pain for a couple of days, it’s only just appeared and perhaps it came about after going a little too hard at the gym. Applying heat in the first instance may be enough to help soothe the area if it’s muscle stiffness. It can be completely normal to get certain aches or pains that resolve on their own within a few days, it’s when they last for weeks, months or years that you need to have a more intelligent approach. If you’ve got a fresh injury and you’re finding that applying heat for a day or two is not resolving the issue and that it’s coming back, try ice instead to see if that will calm the inflammation.

How to Use Ice For Pain Relief

There is a lot of conflicting information out there on whether heat or ice is better, so as a result it’s very difficult if you’re at home potentially googling what would work best, you may not come to any general consensus as to what’s best. Something we do that works well here when we recommend it to our patients, is using ice up to five minutes at a time, a few times a day directly over the spine. This needs to be done consistently for a couple of days. If you have an ice pack that is easily applied over the area that’s great, make sure to wrap it up in a towel to ensure you don’t burn yourself from the ice. If you don’t have an ice pack, frozen peas work in the same way and they can be easily stuck back in the freezer to eat later!

If you’re experiencing pain in the neck, or lower back, place the ice over the area that would be in the middle of the spine – for example, in the middle of the neck or the middle of your lower back, and that will just help to calm down the inflammation in the joints and in the underlying problem.

When To Use Ice & Heat

As the inflammation starts to calm, the muscles will have less of a reaction and will be less likely to tighten up or spasm, but if there are other issues at play in your spine then it may not be quite enough to sustain the lessened inflammation. If you have a spine that is out of alignment, or you have an injury such as a slipped disc, the inflammation could be reduced but will likely build up again until that underlying problem has been dealt with. Ice alone in those circumstances aren’t going to be enough to get the job done, and at that point you should consider seeking treatment for the problem before it becomes something that causes you severe pain that is constant throughout the day.

If you do have pain and generally prefer heat therapy, try to only use this on the muscles for a few days, away from the spine to start with. If that doesn’t resolve in a few days you really should switch over to using an ice pack. Do bear in mind that even if it feels like it’s benefitting you while you have a heat pack on, it’s important to evaluate if it’s having any lasting effect beyond those few minutes. Icing on the other hand, you may not feel the benefits while you are using the ice pack. But later on, or after a few days of consistently using it for short spells interspersed throughout the day you should find it’s making a difference. It is quite normal to feel and become more stiff at first as a result of the ice, generally muscles don’t like the cold so they may well become stiff and hard to move, but try it out for two or three days to see if it makes a difference.

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How Long Should You Use Ice? 

The last thing to bear in mind when using ice is the time that you should be using it. If it’s recommended to use ice for five minutes at a time, five to seven times a day, doing one long spell of 35 minutes using ice is not going to give you the desired effect at all. Using ice beyond five to ten minutes at a time could be counterintuitive and you may end up feeling more inflamed. If you’re at home and have the facilities to use ice more frequently during the day, feel free to do so, but just ensure you’re only using it for no more than five minutes at a time.

We’d say from experience that this method is more effective than favouring heat therapy, although it can be less comfortable in the first instance. If you have an injury that appears to reoccur from time-to-time it’s worth experimenting with ice packs as opposed to hot showers or heat therapy to see whether it’s more effective at bringing down the inflammation. But bear in mind that the injury will only continue to reoccur until you have some targeted treatment. If you’re based in the London area, visit our Bookings page to find out what the initial consultation includes. Call our clinic on 0203 947 3222 or email us at info@themayfairclinic.com to book in your first appointment today.