What’s the best treatment for a Pulled Muscle: Heat or Ice?

Are you experiencing sore muscles but, because of all the conflicting information online, you’re not sure if you should use ice or heat therapy?

You’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we’ll provide you with a simple rule of thumb and expert tips to effectively alleviate muscle pain. Whether you’re recovering from an intense workout or dealing with a nagging injury, our guidance will help you make an informed decision and reduce pain in your muscles.

Let’s dive in!

Ice or Heat: Easy Rule of Thumb

The first thing you need to acknowledge is whether you have an acute injury or chronic pain. An acute injury comes promptly and doesn’t last long. On the other hand, chronic pain develops slowly over time and is usually constant and repeated.

If you have a traumatic injury like a sprain, strain, or cramp that is no older than two days, ice therapy will be the right choice. Ice will reduce the blood flow going into an affected area, which then reduces the swelling and the inflammatory fluids that are collecting in a certain area.

On the contrary, heat therapy is effective for muscle spasms, tight tension muscles, chronic pain from too much sitting, and other injuries that are older than a few days. Heat will open the blood vessels, which will assist the healing process and alleviate some of your pain.

How to use ice therapy

Now that you have applied our rule of thumb to your specific injury and know that you should use cold therapy, here is how to do it properly.

Applying ice pack on ankle
Photo by Vidal Balielo Jr.

The best way is to put ice or a cold gel ice pack directly on the skin because it will give a better therapeutic result. In case you don’t have ice packs or cold gel packs on hand, feel free to use a bag of frozen vegetables—it will do the trick.

This therapy will only work if you use ice for the right amount of time. The time you hold ice on your skin must be between 10 and 20 minutes.

In this time interval, you will go through four different stages:

  1. Cold — an uncomfortable feeling, but it lasts only a few seconds before the tissue doesn’t adapt.
  2. Burning — when we apply ice, the sudden and extreme cold can trigger a strong response from the receptors, which leads to a sensation of burning or stinging.
  3. Aching — the next stage is the feeling of aching due to activation of thermoreceptors, overactive nerves, and cold-induced vasodilation.
  4. Numbness — as soon as the tissue gets numb, you take the ice off and the treatment is over.

You can repeat the cold therapy every hour, as needed. Ice therapy is safe as long as you don’t use “super cold” or dry ice because that can burn the skin.

Ice is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it causes the blood vessels to narrow and reduces internal bleeding. As a result, an ice pack immediately helps to reduce pain and swelling when applied to an acute injury.

How to Use Heat Therapy

Typically, heat therapy helps reduce the pain associated with stiff and sore muscles and joints. Before you begin exercising, apply heat packs to the affected muscles to ease your pain and prevent future pain episodes from developing. This helps with the pain because heat stimulates blood flow and increases the elasticity of the connective tissues. On top of that, heat will relax tight muscles, relieve some arthritis pain from stiff joints, and lessen muscle spasms.

The best way to apply heat is to use some form of cover, making sure there is some moisture on the cover. For example, in our office, we use packs made out of a clay substance that kind of holds heat better than most devices. In a home environment, you can use a damp towel with a hot pack on top.

When it comes to the duration of heat treatment, it is about the same as with ice—anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. In contrast to ice, heat therapy doesn’t have stages, so as long as you can tolerate it, it’s fine. Heat can be done very similarly to ice, every hour.

Can You Use Both Ice and Heat?

If you have a combination of inflammation and muscle spasm, you can combine both ice and heat treatments.

If you apply ice to your body and after that your muscles feel really tight and worse than before, your next step should be contrast therapy—a treatment with heat. After 10 minutes of ice, you should put the heat on for 10 minutes, then ice for 10 minutes, and heat again. You can repeat this process for up to 40 minutes.

This is called contrast therapy, and it’s really effective because we’re bringing the blood flow into the tissue, getting everything to swell, and then adding the ice to decrease the blood flow and squeeze everything out.

Contrast therapy works like a pump for the area and assists in flushing out inflammatory byproducts, which help with the muscle spasm while also addressing the inflammation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Working with patients every day, we get these questions all the time, so we’ve prepared answers for them to clear up any doubts you might have.

Pulled neck muscle in pain

Should I use heat or cold for muscle pain?

For healing chronic muscle pain and soreness, like lower back pain, it’s better to use heat. High temperatures soothe muscle pain, relieve tight muscles, and improve range of motion. You can apply a heating pad and warm compresses to target a specific area, or you can try whole-body treatments like saunas and hot baths.

Should I choose ice or heat for muscle spasm?

A muscle spasm, also known as a muscle cramp, is an involuntary and sudden contraction of a muscle or group of muscles. It can cause pain and a temporary loss of control over the affected muscle. The treatment for a muscle spasm depends on the underlying cause and the stage of the spasm, but the usual initial approach is heat therapy rather than ice.

What will help me relieve the pain—ice or heat for pulled muscle in back?

For the pulled muscle in your back, it’s better to use ice, especially if the injury is still brand new. The same is true of knee pain. Make sure to follow our guidelines above to get the best results.

I’ve tried everything, and nothing helps. What should I do?

If you tried both types of therapies and the pain is still there—you must see a doctor. Only a professional can properly identify and treat the source of the pain and help with pain management.

Our mission is to help everyone live a painless and active life. If you need help and guidelines from a professional, contact us, and we will be more than happy to release the pain.

Key Takeaways

Understanding the type of pain and when and how to use ice or heat therapy can make a significant difference in shortening the recovery period and helping with chronic conditions and acute injuries, pains, and stiffness.

  • For acute injuries, applying ice directly to the skin can effectively reduce pain and swelling. It is recommended to use an ice pack for approximately 10 to 20 minutes and repeat the process every hour.
  • Use heat therapy for chronic injuries to relieve persistent pain. Similar to ice therapy, heat therapy should also be applied for 10 to 20 minutes and can be repeated hourly.
  • If you find that ice therapy makes your pain worse, consider contrast therapy, alternating between ice and heat, as it may yield better results.
  • If your pain becomes unbearable or persists, it is crucial to seek professional advice and guidance to ensure proper treatment and recovery.

Remember, the well-being of your body should always be a priority, and consulting with a healthcare professional is essential for optimal care.

{Note: This content is for educational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with your healthcare provider or seek other professional medical treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something that have read on this blog or in any linked materials.}
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Evolve Chiropractic is leading the way for modern, evidence-based chiropractic care.  With 17 locations through Chicagoland and Northern Illinois, we have become the go-to solution for headache relief, neck & back pain and overall spinal health.

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