Using heat or ice as a form of treatment is easy, inexpensive, and can be very effective if done correctly. These forms of therapy, more or less, help control blood flow. Generally speaking, ice is used to constrict blood vessels with a goal of decreasing inflammation, while heat will increase blood flow and ultimately bring more oxygen to tissues. Although there are many specific conditions that may require one versus the other, the timing of when each are applied is important.
After an injury you can’t go wrong with ice. A good example is an ankle sprain. Your body goes into overdrive to start the repair process and your ankle blows up like a balloon. However, too much or prolonged inflammation leads to scar tissue. The same applies to pain that follows activity. The repetitive motion from that activity may lead to increased inflammation. It may be beneficial to control the inflammatory process with ice.
Heat therapy increases blood flow. It will never be used on an acute injury or any other inflammatory related issue. Unless otherwise prescribed, heat is generally most effective when stiffness is present. Heat will increase temperature and blood flow which will prepare the body for movement. This is similar to when you perform a warm-up before more intense exercise.
It is important to note that using ice or heat should only be needed or utilized in the short term. Either of these modalities won’t chang the underlying cause of the issue.
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