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  • Julie Johns, M.S., L.Ac.

Ice or Heat?

Here we are in the lazy days of summer, but for many of us, summer is anything but lazy, particularly here in Colorado. As Coloradoans, our summer days and weekends are often filled with outdoor activity—biking, hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing, climbing, and/or whitewater rafting. All the activity may flare up old injuries, leave us sore after a weekend outdoors, or, worse yet, result in an acute injury. The question remains, “Which is best? Ice or heat?”

Both can help our bodies heal, depending upon how they are used.

Ice: Ice should be used ONLY during the acute phase (first 24-48 hours) of an injury with swelling and bruising. For example, an ankle sprain is likely to swell immediately. This is the time to apply ice for 10-15 minutes every one to two hours for up to 48 hours. Never leave ice on for more than 20 minutes. After 48 hours, you can apply a contrast bath (alternating heat and ice) for the next 24 hours.

Contrast Bath: A contrast bath can be helpful for a swollen flare up of an old injury, such as a swollen knee after a long hike or a weekend of backpacking. Here, we alternate heat and ice. This creates a pumping action (the heat dilates vessels and the cold contracts) to bring in new blood supply and remove the build up of wastes. Apply a heating pad or hot damp towel to the affected area for 3-4 minutes. Then, apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel for 1 minute. Repeat the steps 3 more times, always ending with ice. Do not use a contrast bath in the acute phase of an injury, on an area with malignancies, or if there is impaired sensation or neuropathy.

Heat: Heat is useful for muscles & tendons, chronic pain, overuse injuries, and stress. The

application of heat expands tissues to increase circulation, lubricate joints, and loosen tight muscles. Apply heat for about 20 minutes to ease muscle spasms or to loosen stiff joints before activity. The application of heat to the neck and shoulders or low back is particularly good for the tight muscles that often accompany modern day stress.

I hope this is helpful. As always, please feel free to contact us for a complimentary consultation or to schedule an appointment.

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