It seems as if fire and water are almost always connected; putting out fires, cooking, those Shaquille O’Neal icyhot commercials, Avatar from the mid-2000s, etc. The same can be said when treating soreness or pain — but which is the best method for recovery? The answer is both, but the major key to relieving discomfort is understanding when it is the right time to use ice, and when to use heat.
Ice is essential for reducing swelling as the coldness will act as a numbing agent and help reduce pain. Ice helps with swelling as it reduces inflammation by narrowing blood vessels, which reduces the amount of tissue fluid.
It is important to remember to take an ‘on-off’ approach when icing; just like a sunburn, iceburn can easily occur. For every 10-15 minutes you are icing, you should match the time you aren’t. It’s also important to never have the ice directly touching your skin; a towel, bandage, wrap or some sort of buffer is imperative to prevent irritation.
Heat on the other hand, is used to help relax or loosen sore muscles. While ice is often more convenient, it really only comes in two forms; either artificial ice packs or cubes. There are many more sources of heat that can be used to soothe pain; heating pads/blankets are great for backs or legs, (especially if you wrap it around with a tensor bandage, although be weary as this can cause burns if you leave it on too long), while showers and baths can be helpful for upper body parts that would otherwise be awkward to drape a small blanket over (like your shoulders or neck). Adding some Epsom salt to the tub is almost like boosting the effectiveness of bath — Epsom salt is a suave name for magnesium sulfate, which helps moderate inflammation.
Like most forms of treatment, too much of it can be harmful. Do not marinate in the bathtub for an hour, as you can become nauseous after spending too much time in high temperatures. Likewise with a heating pad — there are so many stories about people getting burned after falling asleep with a heating pad on — it is very important to be aware of the time when using one.
In short, to optimize recovery, both ice and heat should be used in that order. Ice will help with the initial pain and swelling, while heat can help relax and loosen your sore and tight muscles.