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Heat it, or Ice it?

We’ve all been there at one time or another. You finish a strenuous workout and you just know you’ll pay for it in the morning unless you do something about it quick. But do you need to apply heat or cold? To many, that is pretty straightforward – heat, of course – but the answer can be trickier than it seems. In different situations, heat or ice may be warranted.

If you have tight muscles from exercise but you didn’t strain a muscle – meaning it feels tight but range of motion is normal and there’s no significant pain – then heat will help increase blood flow to your muscles and help loosen up the tissue (eliminating any lactic acid waste buildup).

That being said, if the area is swollen and inflamed, increasing blood flow is not exactly what you should be aiming for. In this instance, it is definitely better to start with ice to try and reduce blood flow to the area which will in turn reduce the swelling and slow down the pain messages being transmitted to the brain.

If you have pain and there’s limited range of motion because you strained or sprained your tissue, you need to ice at least 24 to 48 hours after the start of the symptoms. Afterwards, if range of motion has been restored and you feel very little discomfort, you can consider heating.

If it is a tendon or joint issue, you should ice the joint or tendon throughout the duration of the discomfort or injury.

If you are having significant discomfort or limitation in movement, you should see your doctor for an evaluation. If you cannot stand on it or bear weight on it or if you can’t lift the limb or body part, you should definitely see your doctor. They may refer you for a potential imaging evaluation of the body part to see if anything is broken or torn. (I should have heeded that warning when I fractured my foot a few years back and simply thought it was yet another sprained ankle).

The takeaway is that if you are at all uncertain, have your doctor take a look first. Time is of the essence when it comes to initial breaks or tearing of bone and tissue. You don’t want to wait too long.

Make sure you are icing or heating over your clothing or a cloth so you don’t injure your skin. You may think the heating pad is perfectly bearable on your skin only to realize afterwards that you actually burned yourself. Also, do not ice or heat for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, no matter how tempting it is to do it for a longer period of time. You can definitely repeat the therapy multiple times per day, but make sure to give your skin over the injured area a break from the heat or ice so you don’t incur any skin damage.

Showers and/or Baths

A study published in The Cochrane Library in 2012 suggested that after exercise, a cold bath may be an effective way to prevent and help sore muscles. However, the researchers were not certain whether there may be dangerous side effects that could affect the person later on.

I personally have developed a masochistic streak lately it seems because I have started this weird little thing where I will have a hot soak followed by a cold one. If I’m in the shower, I take it hot and then towards the end will gradually turn off the hot water until I’m standing under cold water alone – well as cold as I can take it that is. That is by far nowhere near as bad as it gets when I do it in the bathtub where I will usually soak 30 minutes in that hot steamy water only to drain the tub completely and fill it up with cold water (no hot water whatsoever) while still in the tub. So far I have managed to spend 18 minutes in that cold bath, once. More often than not, I’ll be in that cold water for 12 minutes before I can’t take it any longer and have to get out.

Why would I ever put myself through that willingly you might ask? It started as a test over the summer after reading in an article that cold showers helped not only to combat muscle soreness but also helped stimulate weight loss (see the article here). I figured I was dying of heat anyways in my apartment so it would be refreshing and I had nothing to lose. That went rather well as far as enduring the water goes, and the muscle soreness did not last near as long as it usually does. So I started challenging myself to do it every time I would take a shower. Then came the challenge to do it while in the bathtub.

I managed to last 5 minutes the first time, then I challenged myself to lasting at least 6 the next time. From 6, I challenged myself to 9 and so on so forth. To me, this is worth it because I definitely feel revived afterwards, my muscles seem to like it, but more than that, I am proving to myself that I can totally do something when I put my mind to it. It may not be the most enjoyable experience, but it’s not hurting me any. And if the Finnish people can go from a hot sauna to a frigid lake and not die in the process, then this Canadian can totally suck it up in her bathtub! 🙂

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