There’s no two ways about it. Sore muscles demand attention and you don’t always want to pop a pill. Heat and ice are probably the most common alternative options that come to mind. Are there advantages of choosing one form of relief over the other? Let’s take a look.
How ice helps sore muscles
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia ice is helpful for relieving inflammation and swelling. That’s because ice slows both circulation and blood flow, which relieves swelling, pain and inflammation. Heat can actually worsen inflammation, so although ice doesn’t feel as nice, it is the better way to go. Choose ice for acute pain, too. Remember the old RICE advice – rest, ice, compression and elevation for effective, at home relief of pains and strains.
For best results, apply the ice pack for a day or two after the injury. Remove the ice pack for at least 10 minutes between each maximum 20 minute application (for example, on for 20 and off for 10). No need to go for fancy gel packs. You can place a few cubes of ice in a plastic bag or grab a bag of frozen veggies, wrap in a thin cloth, and apply as needed.
How heat helps sore muscles
Heat increases blood flow and oxygen to muscles and tendons. The effect is calming, so the muscles begin to relax. Heat also reduces spasms and relieves pain and stiffness associated with chronic arthritis. Heat brings soothing relief to sore, aching muscles by helping to open the blood vessels. Options include dry and moist heat. Use care with dry heat (think heating pad) as these sources draw moisture from the body and can result in dry skin. Also, never sleep on a heating pad because of the potential for burns. Sources of moist heat include baths and hot towels. Heat helps most when the temperature is constant. Consider alternating the source so you have a backup available as your towel cools.
For best results, apply the heat for no longer than 20 minutes at a time. Choose ice rather than heat if your soreness is accompanied by swelling. Avoid heat altogether if you have diabetes or poor circulation.
Don’t ignore sprains, strains or soreness. Use ice for swelling and inflammation. Use heat for aching, tight muscles. Apply no longer than 20 minutes at a time and in a day or two you should be ready to get back to your workout routine. If you don’t feel any better in that time, it is a good idea to contact your healthcare provider.