We all know that we are supposed to ice an injury right? Or are we supposed to apply heat? Or is it heat and ice… OK, so maybe there is still some confusion about what to do and if cryotherapy or thermotherapy (the fancy way of saying icing or heating). Both are cheap, easy, safe and sensible self treatment options for lots of common painful problems. So, which is for what, when should you use it and why?
Ice, ice baby
The general rule is ice is for fresh injuries. There is a bit of debunking going on of late about icing, and the backlash has some merit but the main reason for the application is pain relief, and there’s really is no problem with that. Red, inflamed, hot and swollen tissues are side effects of the inflammation process which although normal, can be incredibly painful. Ice is a drugless way to calm down inflamed superficial tissues. Less inflammation = less pain. For that reason ice is usually more effective for superficial injuries than deep tissue ones.
Heat is for stiff, aching muscles, chronic pain, and stress. Think warm baths, hot towels or a long shower. Heat is soothing for tight overworked muscles, reducing anxiety and activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Reducing the stress pain causes and anxiety about having pain can actually reduce your pain levels leaving you feeling better in more ways than one.
Handle with caution!
They may seem pretty innocuous but ice and heat have the potential to do some minor, temporary harm if not used appropriately. Ice can aggravate stiffness and make a tight muscle tighter, heat can increase inflammation, and either can be stressful if the application is unexpected or unwanted.
So which one works?
So you ice an injury but heat is better for muscle soreness – So what do you use and when? Since most injuries are accompanied by pain should you apply hot or cold? It can be a tough decision but for the first few days ice usually wins out. A muscle injury usually involves obvious trauma during intense effort, causing severe pain suddenly. Most of the inflammation that accompanies an injury will occur in the first 24 to 48 hours so this is the best time to chill with an ice pack.
If you wake up the morning after leg day with sore legs dig out the wheat bag or take a nice hot bath. A bit of heat will soften and relax those tight muscles and help you sit without the wincing.
The good, the bad and the efficacy
Neither heat nor cold will instantly fix what ails you but they may both provide some pain relief or other mild benefits. Evidence shows that they are fairly equal in potency, which is to say not very potent, but do provide some relief. The reason for reason to drag those peas out of the freezer is because it’s a cheap, easy, and mostly safe method to help you recover. Once the initial pain and swelling has died down a good massage can help as well, especially one that utilizes hot towels or stones. Most importantly use what feels best to you. It’s your body and no-one else can tell you what feels right.
Feeling a bit achey following your workout can be sort of a badge of honor. Aching muscles that make a single stair difficult to conquer are a reminder of the hard yards you put in the day before. Did you crush your workout or did it crush you? And how do you differentiate between normal post workout muscle pain and an injury?
You're not exempt
Just because you work out on the reg, doesn't mean you won't experience some post workout pain. If you are trying something new that your body isn't familiar with you will probably experience some pain. Just remember that pain doesn't necessarily mean gain but it can lead to injury.
What sort of pain?
Is it dull and achey or sharp and sudden? If the pain you feel is stiff, tight or achey delayed muscle onset soreness (DOMS) might be to blame. If the pain is sharp, sudden or shooting you might have an injury that needs some attention.
It keeps hurting
Unlike DOMS, an injury doesn't ease up after a day or two. Everybody is different but you should reach your peak soreness between 24 and 48 hours after activity. If your pain is not decreasing after a couple of days there might be something more serious going on and if it's not improving it might be time to check in with your GP.
It doesn't feel better with rest or exercise
If your pain doesn't improve or gets worse with rest or gentle warm up exercise, stop exercising! DOMS should subside once those muscles get warmed up but if you are still feeling pain let those muscles rest.
Snaps, crackles or pops
You know your in trouble if your body starts making breakfast cereal noises. Have you ever been at the gym and felt a pop?It's usually a sure sign that something's wrong but when you are pumped up and preoccupied you may not notice or pay attention. A good rule to follow is "if you feel it pop, you should stop".
If you think you might be injured, schedule an appointment with your GP. Not only will they be able to diagnose your pain and rule out any potential injury, but they can also help create a specific plan to get you back on track (which may include massage).
And remember an injury doesn't mean you have to stop your fitness routine altogether but you may need to alter the types of activities you do until you recover so ask your doctor what alternative exercises might work for you.