One of the most common questions I hear from patients is, “When should I use ice and when should I use heat?” Ice reduces inflammation and swelling. It is used for acute pain and injuries. If you hit your thumb with a hammer, it swells up; that is inflammation. You need to put ice on it; ice is a natural anti-inflammatory. If you applied heat, the swelling would increase and so would the pain.
Following an acute injury, ice should be applied for 1-2 days. Soft gel ice packs, a bag of frozen vegetables, or a wet wash cloth folded in a zip-lock bag all make appropriate ice packs. The ice pack should be applied for 10 minutes at a time. Remove the ice pack for at least 40 minutes and repeat the cycle as necessary. A towel or paper towel should be placed between the skin and cold pack. Remember: never apply a cold pack in one location for longer than 20 minutes, and never place it directly on the skin because cold can freeze the skin.
To apply a cold pack to the lower back, simply place it over the affected area and hold it in place with the waistband of your pants or underwear. Be sure to place a paper towel between your skin and the ice pack.
To apply a cold pack to the neck, lie down on your back with a pillow. Place the ice pack between the pillow and the affected area. Make sure to place a paper towel between your skin and the ice pack to prevent frostbite. Do not sleep with the ice applied, and be sure to inspect the area for any excessive redness or discoloration.
After 2 days, apply heat in 15-20 minute increments to increase blood flow to the area.