Should you use heat or ice for pain? There are multiple opinions on which method is best to use and for what ailment, but unfortunately there isn't a whole lot of data to indicate what is actually the best treatment.
My suggestion is to do what works best for you. If icing for 15 minutes just feels awful, don't do it. If you feel worse after applying a heat pack for 10-20 minutes, it's not helping you. Choose the method that provides relief during the 10-20 minute application and also leaves you feeling better an hour or more later.
My preferred application is a combination of heat and ice, called Contrast Therapy. In this method you create a vascular flush by alternating cold to constrict the vessels and remove inflammation, and heat to dilate the vessels to increase blood flow and relax muscle tissue. This is an effective at-home treatment for many common foot complaints, including:
- Plantar Fascitis
- Heel Spurs
- Foot Cramps
- Stiff Joints
- Achiness from Over-Use
- Post Injury or Surgery Inflammation (talk to health care provider about appropriate time to begin)
The Foot Soak Method:
2. Fill one container with hot tap water (max 110 degrees so you don't burn yourself). For increase therapeutic benefit, add a cup of epsom salts. Fill just enough so that the water reaches over your ankle when fully submerged.
3. Fill the other with cold tap water adding ice if you want to make it colder. Make sure both tubs are tolerable.
4. Before starting your soak, grab a towel to dry your feet when you are done. Alternate soaking your feet in each tub according to the schedule that fits best for you:
For tension or stiffness, alternate 3 minutes hot, 1 minute cold for 15 -20 minutes. End with cold.
For inflammation or pain, alternate 3 minutes cold, 1 minute hot for 15-20 minutes. End with cold.
These times are general guidelines and can be adjusted as needed. Again, do what feels and works best for you.
If doing this method for a full 20 minutes, you may want to add more hot water or ice during the soak. But even a temperature difference of 20 degrees is enough to create the desired effect.
Additional Contrast Therapy Methods:
The method above can also be used for hands, wrists, forearms & elbows.
If you want to use contrast therapy on a body area where you can't to do a full soak, you can apply the same method using hot and ice packs. This can be as simple as filling gallon zip-lock baggies with hot water and ice water. Be sure to protect your skin using a thin towel wrapped around each pack.
Contrast Hydrotherapy isn't appropriate for everyone. If you are uncertain whether this is safe for you or are generally supposed to avoid applying heat, ice or have a heart condition, please consult your doctor before trying this method.