This may be one of the most asked questions in outpatient physical therapy. When do you use ice and when do you use heat? The most common answer is ice for an acute injury and heat for a chronic problem. There are several specifics when it comes to picking one over the other.
Ice is most often used with an acute injury. This means when there is a new injury, swelling, or a new pain from an event such as a fall. When applying the ice or cold pack make sure to wrap it in a towel or cloth and keep the cold on the affected area for 10-15 minutes. Be aware not to keep the ice on for longer than 20 minutes. Do not apply cold to areas where there are sensory issues or circulation issues.
Heat is often used on chronic conditions such as arthritis or continued stiffness for week or more after an injury. There are several options when it comes to heat therapy including a warm wash cloth, a warm shower or a heating pad. Heat can be applied for 15 to 30 minutes. Be aware of the temperature of the heat to avoid burning yourself. People with sensory changes, open wounds, or swelling should not apply heat to those areas.
If the use of ice or heat causes increased pain or swelling stop the treatment immediately. If you continue to have pain after several days call your PT or MD for evaluation.