To Heat Pack Or To Ice? Answering An Eternal, Befuddling Question
Imagine the scenario. You're sat at your desk. You get up to go and refill your water bottle, and you feel something go. It might be a newly acquired twinge. It might just be stiffness. It might be that you're feeling the after effects of the weekend's sport. Maybe sitting down for too long is doing a number on your neck. Whatever the cause, you need relief.
The problem with fixing any of these ills is that conventional wisdom doesn't really seem to have settled on an answer as to whether or not you should ice or heat a certain injury. Pro athletes who pick up muscle strains on a footy field are televised with bags of ice containing half the arctic circle strapped to their thighs, whereas in real life you're likely to have someone tell you to apply a heat pack instead. The same goes for bruises, headaches, cramps, second-day DOMS, whatever.
As such, we thought we'd provide a handy cheat sheet on the best course of action, whatever might ail you.
Want to avoid DOMS? Ice it.
There's a reason pretty much every pro athlete has at least one snap on Instagram of them taking an ice bath, a winter dip or taking to a Cryo chamber. Chilling your muscles is the best way to prevent DOMS immediately post-exercise, with a systemic review finding that ice and cryotherapy were among the most effective ways to reduce DOMS before they take hold.
Another study found that cold-water therapy helped prevent DOMS by up to 20%, however there's basically no evidence to suggest that if you've woken up unable to walk a couple days after a squat session, icing at that point will do anything to help it.
Already got DOMS? Heat it.
On the flip side, getting into a warm bath straight after a workout won't do anything to help stave off DOMS. It may, however, be better at treating it. A study conducted by Loma Linda University in California found that heating the muscles can increase circulation, speeding up recovery, and also inhibit deep muscular pain by shutting off pain receptors in the affected area.
A smaller study by the same university also found that heat therapy can reduce muscle stiffness, while one conducted at UNM also found that heat is more effective than cold in limiting the loss of Muscular Myoglobin, indicating a reduced rate of muscular damage.
Got a bruise? Ice it, then heat it.
This one should be fairly obvious, but it holds true. According to the Mayo Clinic, icing straight after getting a bruise helps to constrict blood vessels, preventing the blood leaking that causes swelling and trademark marks under your skin. It's also great for numbing the area if you leave it on long enough, providing an effective form of pain relief.
There are varying opinions as to whether there's any point after picking up a knock that using a heat pack will help get rid of it faster. A Turkish study found that when applied 2-3 days after it's picked up, a heat pack can significantly help reduce the size of a bruise, as it's believed that the increased circulation will help clear away the trapped blood.
Got a strain or a sprain? Ice it.
The annoying thing about both sprains and muscle strains is that they don't sound like what they are. A strain is actually a micro-tear in a certain muscle, while sprains are the same thing but to ligaments and tendons in flexible areas like the ankle, knee, elbow and wrist.
Both cause local bleeds and inflammation, and as such, should be treated with ice, which will help reduce local and swelling, however although ice is a great pain reliever, there's not much evidence to suggest it'll help heal a sprain or a strain in the days after it occurs.
Only after it's healed should you start bringing heat into the mix, perhaps to help loosen the muscle up and increase circulation for renewed exercise.
Stiff muscles? Heat it.
Stiffness is perhaps the most common affliction, and can sometimes be confused with DOMS or even a minor strain. But they're not the same thing. What we're talking about here is, for instance getting headaches from a tense neck or having your calves seize up when you don't warm up properly. This also extends to cramping.
All of these are known as overuse injuries, and are more effectively treated by helping to promote muscle flexibility and circulation to the area, both of which boost recovery and help prime your muscles for further use.
The answer? As any unlucky lady who's ever had menstrual cramps will tell you, get a heat pack on it.