Ice vs. Heat

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(borrowed from: Yoga for Regular Guys page 165)

Author: Craig S. Aaron “The Yoga Doc”

You need to understand a little about inflammation to figure out whether you need to ice or heat an area of pain or injury.  Inflammation is a natural, defensive response to tissue damage from an injury, such as an ankle sprain. Inflammation also results from intense physical activity that causes tissue to stress, but doesn’t cause an injury, such as  a baseball pitcher throwing one hundred pitches in a game, or anyone who works out hard and feels really stiff the next day or two.

Inflammation has 5 major signs and symptoms:  redness, pain, heat, swelling and loss of function of the injured area.  If you have at least one or two of these, then you should not use heat.  In fact, you should probably use ice 99 percent of the time—unless you have frostbite in the area of pain.

Ice treatment, or cryotherapy, is the best natural anti-inflammatory on the planet.  It helps reduce heat, swelling, and pain without causing damage to your liver, kidneys, or stomach, the way most over-the-counter and prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatories will do.  Cryotherapy is also one of the best ways to keep your body from getting stiff and sore after vigorous exercise.  Have you ever noticed a baseball pitcher with an ice pack on his shoulder or elbow immediately after a game? Ice decreases the post-exercise recovery time so the athlete can come back and compete as soon as possible with minimal soreness.


Many people ask, “Why shouldn’t I use heat on an injured area if it feels so good?”  It’s true that heat does feel good initially, but heat therapy, whether it is moist heat or electric heat, won’t decrease the inflammation in your muscles and joints.   In fact, heat increases circulation and might cause more inflammatory chemicals to flood the affected area, which results in more stiffness and pain to an injured area and increases the amount of time that it takes to heal.   In other words, heat on an injured joint could cause it to lock up rather than loosen up.  Electric heating pads are known to actually weaken scar tissue or injured muscles by “cooking’ or denaturing the proteins in injured muscles, causing a decrease in the stability of the injured area and increasing the inflammation response. Using heat in these situations may actually slow your recovery time.

So, when do you use heat?

Moist heat (not electric heating pads) is great if you have morning stiffness such as arthritic joint pain and stiffness upon waking up in the morning—without any redness, swelling or loss of function.  This is the type of pain that comes from an old injury that flares up whenever the weather changes. If you have an injury such as this, then moist heat from a hot shower, hot bath, or a hot tub will help get you moving again.



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