Whether you’ve been shoveling snow, working in the yard, or lifting weights, your muscles are probably letting you know it. Overusing or overloading your muscles results in muscle strain. Also known as a pulled muscle, a muscle strain is an overstretched or torn muscle. The injury occurs when the muscle is stressed beyond its limits. So what is the best cure to soothe those aching muscles – heat or ice?
Before you reach for the heating pad, take note that applying heat to a muscle strain within the first 24 hours will actually increase swelling and pain. So your best bet, at least for the first full day, is to doctor your hurting muscles with a cold compress. Cold therapy will reduce swelling and pain because ice is a vaso-constrictor (meaning it causes the blood vessels to narrow). Apply a re-sealable bag of ice wrapped in an insulating towel (never apply ice directly to skin) to the sore area for 20 minutes at a time – any longer can put you at risk for frostbite. Wait at least an hour before reapplying.
Once swelling is gone, heat may be applied to sooth aching muscles. Moist heat may be more beneficial than dry heat. Heat will increase blood flow to the area and relax muscles. As with the cold compress, limit heat applications to 20 minutes at a time to avoid overheating muscle tissue, and wait one hour between heat applications.
Important to note, individuals with circulatory problems or nerve damage should not apply heat or cold to injuries.
While the muscle strain is healing, take care to protect the muscle from further injury. Avoid any strenuous activity, and allow the muscle to rest. Gently wrapping the muscle with an elastic bandage to provide compression will help give support and reduce swelling. Elevating the strained muscle will also help alleviate swelling. If soreness persists, consult a physician.