by Alan Jordan
Many patients who experience neck pain come to the clinic and inform us that they have applied either ice or heat to their neck due to pain. More often than not, they have made the wrong choice.
This article will address when it is appropriate to use either ice or heat treatment for neck pain.
Ice is usually recommended for acute injuries. It works by narrowing the space within the blood vessels supplying the area, which in turn decreases the amount of irritating chemicals that are transported to the area.
Although these chemicals are a natural part of the healing process, they contribute to swelling and the formation of scar tissue at the injury site. Of equal importance is the fact that ice reduces pain. We should bear in mind that the tissues of the neck are essentially identical to those of the ankle and we would naturally apply ice to a sprained ankle.
Ice should not be applied directly to the skin but wrapped in a thin tea towel. It should be applied for no more than 20 minutes and used every few hours. Do not apply ice for more than 20 minutes due to the fact that you run the risk of developing frostbite.
Ice and aspirin are recommended by most doctors for the first 48-72 hours. If ice provides good relief, it is fine to continue using it for more than 48-72 hours.
As opposed to ice, heat treatment should be used for more chronic or longstanding conditions. Heat will relax the tissues and stimulate blood flow to the area being treated. Heating pads or hot wet towels are both excellent methods.
Place a washcloth under hot tap water and then apply to the injured area. As is the case with ice, treat the area for approximately 20 minutes. Heat should not be used while sleeping. Applying heat to a vulnerable area before physical activity may be a good idea but it should not be used after exercise, when ice is more appropriate.
When to seek help from a health professional
Most of us experience mild aches and sprains that usually resolve within a few days or so. It is in these instances that ice and non-prescriptive medication is most helpful. If your problem continues for more than 4-5 days or has not improved, then you are advised to seek professional help.