There has always been confusion surrounding heating versus icing injuries. The line has never been drawn on what to use unless you see your doctor, of course.
The truth is, there is a clear line that tells you when to heat and when to ice without going straight to the emergency room. Treatment for an injury is determined by its location and the type of injury sustained. Not only will we explain when to ice and when to heat, but we will also explain why.
What Are Ice and Heat Used for?
While ice is used to treat an injury, heat is used to control the pain and stress connected to muscle damage.
While the newest trends have attempted to debunk the use of ice in general, scientific evidence shows that ice is extremely beneficial for injuries, especially when it comes to minor pain control that is not completely relieved by anti-inflammatory drugs.
Ice is also beneficial to reduce the swelling in tissues that were aggravated by the injury. It helps to relieve heat from the injury, redness, and swelling. It is extremely helpful, and aids in the normal healing process. It is also a great way to reduce the pain associated with stubborn injuries that are proving difficult to treat through medication and biological therapies.
Ice therapy is not an evil method of treating wounds and bruises, even though some not so reputable sources may try to insist it will. It is a natural way of treating your own injuries, decreasing the amount of pain you feel without maxing out on pain medication, and a great way to relieve swelling. Bear in mind that you should not ice a back injury. We’ll explain in detail why below, but in short, the idea is that many people feel significantly worse after doing so.
Heat is used to treat muscle injuries, pain that falls into the chronic category, and muscle stress. Heat is able to relieve pain of large muscle spasms, neck pain, back pain, and pain in the nervous system.
When You Should Not Ice or Heat an Injury
Heat is well known for making swelling worse. Ice is well known for making muscle tension and muscle spasms worse, and more painful. Because of this, if you use the wrong method of treating an injury, you can do mild to moderate harm to the area.
Ice and heat are both controversial in contradicting environments and situations: Ice is pointless when you are shivering, and heat is pointless when you are sweating in the summer heat. Not only is it pointless, it can also be interpreted by the body as a threat, which can significantly increase the amount of pain experienced from the injury.
Do Not Ice Lower Back or Neck Pain
Wait! What? You shouldn’t ice low back pain? The truth is, treating low back pain with ice can make the pain worse. Icing these areas can actually cause the body to feel threatened. In many cases, you will immediately notice that the muscle spasm increases the second you place ice on the injured area. In other cases, you might notice a very unpleasant sensation when the ice is applied.
After a few minutes go by, you will notice that your pain has increased, and the area becomes extremely stiff and difficult to move. While it does not do any permanent damage, it is not a very pleasant experience and you most likely will not try it again.
According to scientific studies, the reason the lower back and neck react in this manner is because they are full of muscular trigger points, or muscle knots. These are common muscle dysfunctions found in the back because this area carries so much of the human weight and is responsible for so many movement functions.
Muscle dysfunction knots are not well known, and are greatly underestimated by health care professionals, and sometimes even doctors. In some cases, in people who work their backs hard, these trigger points require very little stimuli to trigger excruciating back pain that cannot be deciphered through x-ray, MRI, or CT scan. Over time, they create what is called interior muscle knots, that cannot be palpated from the outside of the back and actually ball up and face toward the stomach. You can feel the knot, but your doctor cannot.
If you consider how your body is structured, you will see how much your spine really does, it protects the spinal cord, it carries all of the nerves to various exit points throughout your body, and if compromised, it can cause you to become paralyzed. That is pretty hard work for something that looks like a rippled stick put together with a lot of puzzle pieces. No wonder the brain is so over protective!
The muscles spasm up to protect one of the most unstable, yet most important structures in our body. While this may seem cruel, it is understandable that the brain would rather trigger pain and muscle spasms than allow something to happen to it.
Ice contributes to the pain because cold and trigger points are not friends. These trigger points are extremely sensitive because they act as a protective mechanism.
To show the lack of understanding for the situation, many doctors around the world are still telling their patients to ice the pain in their lower back. This is because they are well educated in the theory of icing muscles, but not knowledgeable regarding the way trigger points work with the body, which is an upcoming science linked to the emergence of fibromyalgia.
Heating Back Pain Does Help
While heat is not a miracle cure for pain, and is by no means a cure, it does help relieve swelling and the intensity of back pain. When it comes to the back, heat is always preferred for treatment. Whether you are soaking in a hot tub to relieve the pain, or laying on a warm heating pad, you will experience extensive relief from the pain. Unfortunately, the pain tends to return after the skin cools down.
On the other hand, if the heat applied is too intense, it can cause the back muscles to recoil from the heat, causing the spasm to become worse, or even triggering a second muscle spasm around the area of the existing pain.
While ice causes trigger points in the back to over react, heat does not cause these trigger points to fire. This is why heating the area to a moderate temperature can relieve pain long enough for anti-inflammatory medications to work their way into your system.
So, what is the Story with Necks?
The information we gave explaining what happens to the back when it is iced holds true with necks as well. However, the argument against icing the neck is not as strong as it is with the back, the word ‘never’ does not apply here.
Just like back pain, the majority of neck pain is not considered inflammatory or injurious in nature. This is the criterion for icing an injury. Just like backs, the neck is easily irritated with cold. Have you ever been hit in the back of the neck with a snow ball? The cold hurts worse than the snow ball impact!
The most common problem people face with their neck is the “crick in the neck,” which is enough to make you slightly hostile. This is usually brought on by chilly air hitting the neck at night, and not by the way you slept on your pillow.
Even if we break down all of the specifics, it is better to learn by experience. Take a small piece of ice from the freezer and place it on your neck for a few seconds. You will see quickly that your neck does not like it at all.
Unfortunately, no matter what you do, the neck is more fragile than the back. Because the brain knowns this, it pays more attention to the back than it does the neck, and protects it a lot more. Necks are susceptible to being injured a lot more easily, especially with a condition known as whiplash – which is way more common than straining muscles in your lower back.
Since whiplash is a mixture of painful symptoms, like bone damage, muscle damage, nerve damage, superficial tissue damage, and inflammation of any of the structures, early stages may be treated successfully with ice. And since the neck is thinner, it may be iced in the early stages of the injury and then treated with heat later. However, if the injury is not recent, icing should be avoided and heat should be applied instead.