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  • Writer's pictureMelissa MacDonald DC

Ice or Heat: What to Use for Recovery?

Are you in pain from rolling an ankle? Or maybe low back pain that is always there, or just a nagging injury that won’t go away? What should you do, ice? Heat? Rest? Let’s take a look at what you should do to recover the fastest and get back to work and the activities you love because no one has time to be sidelined.


All information, content, and material of this website is for informational purposes only and are not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider.

History of Our Attempt to Heal the Musculoskeletal System

In 1978 Dr. Gabe Mirkin coined the acronym R.I.C.E for the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries. The biggest concerns that were being managed were symptoms – pain and swelling. Understanding of how we heal came later and caused changes, but when it initially came out, the question of did it make the healing time shorter was never asked.

  • R – Rest

  • I – Ice

  • C – Compress

  • E – Elevate

Rest was utilized to offload the injured joint and theoretically prevent further injury. If you have a broken or shattered leg, it’s important not to walk and further displace the fracture. If it is a sprained joint, is the same true? Ice was used for pain management and inflammation control. This all sounds good, but what is inflammation? Our bodies are incredibly smart and will try to do the best thing for themselves. Inflammation is our body's response to an injury or an illness. Signs of inflammation are redness, swelling, pain, stiffness, and loss of function in the joint. Inflammation is caused by chemicals in our white blood cells. The substances are released in an area to increase blood flow and create pain as a protective measure to prevent movement. Two types of inflammation are essential to understand – acute and chronic. Acute inflammation occurs within minutes and is generally short-lived. Chronic inflammation is a long-standing disease process that is typically associated with an issue with the immune system. These two types of inflammation are important to consider when deciding on care. Another way to manage inflammation is compression. An ace wrap can be used to provide gentle compression to prevent too much swelling. But be careful, too much compression can cut off blood supply, accidentally creating a tourniquet. The last step is to elevate, which is to use gravity to help with the swelling.

Over time things started to change, initially with the addition of “P,” resulting in the acronym PRICE. The “P” stood for protection. Protection, such as bracing, was utilized to prevent further injury and potentially allow for the return to activity before complete healing. This can be important if there is a need to return to work.

The next change was in 2010 when the “R” was dropped for “OL,” making the mnemonic POLICE. The shift from “rest” to “optimal loading” came with the understanding that our body heals better with controlled stress. With too long of a rest period, there is a loss of range of motion and function; also, fear-avoidance to activity can set in.

The most recent change is the largest and was developed based on the need to load the tissue to heal. The new mnemonic is PEACE & LOVE.

  • P – Protect

Used for 1 to 3 days to minimize bleeding, prevent further tearing of the injured tissue, and reduce the risk of more significant injury.

  • E – Elevate

Utilizes natural gravity to help reduce swelling of the tissue. Must be above the heart.

  • A – Avoid anti-inflammatory modalities

The research has determined that their use can have a long term effect on tissue healing. Each part of the inflammatory process is essential, and ice and over the counter medication impede different steps and increase healing time. Ice has no evidence of benefit other than reported pain relief while numb.

  • C – Compress

Use of taping and bandages to help limit inter-joint swelling and tissue bleeding.

  • E – Educate

Teaching individuals that the best way to heal is to move. Research has shown some passive care options such as muscle stim, massage, or manual therapy can be counterproductive long term when not combined with rehabilitative exercise.

  • L – Load

Research has shown that movement and exercise is the best way to recover from an injury. Loading the injury to pain tolerance instead of only loading while remaining pain-free has shown to lead to quicker recovery times.

  • O – Optimism

With all injuries, there is a psychological factor in how we see the damage. Catastrophisation, depression, and fear can create barriers to recovery. Pessimistic thoughts can create suboptimal outcomes and a worse prognosis. Meaning keeping a positive outlook will create a more optimal recovery.

  • V – Vascularization

Pain-free cardio training is a cornerstone of recovery. The exact dosage hasn’t been researched, but early mobilization increases blood flow and improves motivation.

  • E – Exercise

And the final step, if it’s not clear yet, is to get back to movement. Improving mobility, strength, and proprioception (awareness in space) creates the best environment for recovery.

We have now covered the history of how we have changed our treatment recommendations. Now let’s talk about when to use ice and heat.

When should you use ICE? HEAT?

Ice has been moved to the emergency medicine realm of pain management. It is truly one of the best pain managers. Using ice days after an injury is not a great option unless you are utilizing it to reduce pain to do rehab exercises. Quite a few musculoskeletal conditions can be caused by spasming of the muscles. Adding ice may make them feel better for a short period, but it will tighten down the muscles further. Heat can be a better option for managing pain because it will help to lose the tight muscles.

If you don’t know, ask which would be better. And remember, our goal is to get you better faster and keep you better longer. Life is a competition, and there is no time to be sidelined.

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