Ah the age-old question… “Should I use ice, or should I grab the heat bag?”

It’s a question that we get asked a lot here at Willunga Physio, and that’s why we thought we would
write this blog to explain the differences, a little bit of the science behind what they do, and some of the real-world scenarios that we would recommend ice or heat for.

What do they ACTUALLY do…? “The Science”

When we apply ICE, the blood vessels in that area will contract, which is known as vasoconstriction,
causing the area to feel numb. This constriction of the blood vessels helps to decrease swelling by
“squeezing” the swelling out of the area and blocks some nerve signals in the joint or muscle which
are causing you that intense, acute pain.

When we apply HEAT, this widens the blood vessels, known as vasodilation, allowing more, fresh
blood into the area. This new blood supply allows muscles to become relaxed, as well as reducing
the nerve sensitivity in that area, resulting in less pain, and that comfortable feeling we all know.


So, let’s get down to some real-world scenarios, and understand whether ice or heat would be best!

When we think about injuries/pains that HEAT would help more in, the big ones would include things like ongoing, chronic neck and back pain, especially when they are a bit achy and stiff, (e.g if you get home from a long day of sitting at your desk and you feel a bit tight in the neck) but not if you have just recently flared up your symptoms. It can also be especially helpful for sufferers of osteoarthritis, unless you have had a recent flare up – then it would be considered as acute.

With regard to ICE, this is extremely helpful for any of those nasty, acute, or new injuries – such as rolling your ankle, wrist sprains, tennis elbow, or a flare up of your existing injuries or arthritis. A common example is when you have just strained your low back lifting a heavy pot and felt something “tear”. It is especially important to use ice if there are signs of inflammation like swelling, redness or heat coming from the area, as applying heat could even increase the inflammation.

As a guide:
 Tight, stiff muscles and joints
 Chronic problems, that you have been dealing with for some time
 Acute injuries – especially within the first 48-72 hours
 Signs of inflammation – if the area is hot, red, swollen
 Pain at night, or when resting

As always, if you are unsure, please come in and have a chat with one of our physios!

Want to learn more, or book someone in?

Call us on 8556 4416