It is the eternal question for runners – should I use ice or heat for my ailment? Which one is better to help me heal and get me back out running and doing what I love to do? Each method provides its own therapeutic benefits and when used properly can enhance the healing process and getting you up and move again.
The use of ice during the initial (acute) stage of an injury constricts blood vessels, decreasing blood flow to the injured area. Decreased blood flow will help decrease swelling, inflammation, pain, and muscle spasm. Ice also lowers cell metabolism and helps to prevent tissue death.
While ice is definitely good within the first 24 hours of an injury, it is also beneficial during later stages of injury. Ice can be used after a workout or any time there is pain, inflammation, spasm, or swelling.
In order for ice to achieve therapeutic benefits, the recommended time of application is 20 minutes. During the 20 minutes, the body goes through 4 different stages: coldness, burning, aching, and finally numbness. As soon as numbness is achieved, ice should be removed. Wait an hour before re-applying ice to the same area to resume treatment.
The application of heat to the body also has therapeutic benefits. Heat causes the blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow to the area. An increase in blood flow will bring oxygen and nutrients to the injured area, helping flush out any metabolic waste created in the wake of the injury. In contrast to ice, heat application increases cell metabolism and promotes healing. Heat increases the extensibility of muscle and connective tissue, causing them to be more receptive to exercise and stretching and in turn increasing flexibility and range of motion.
Heat can also be used to increase blood flow to areas of chronic pain, tightness, and muscle spasm. Do not use heat in the first 24 hours after an injury as it will increase swelling and inflammation.