Ice vs. Heat for Jaw Pain: The Showdown

icy!Heat and cold therapy has been used for decades to treat pain and swelling, and are two of the simplest treatments available. They are considered a generally safe, effective, inexpensive and under utilized tool. Heat and ice have opposite effects when you have pain and inflammation. Heat increases blood circulation and helps to relax tight muscles, while ice constricts blood vessels and decreases blood circulation to the area (and as a result reduces inflammation and numbs pain).

Ice – The Details

  • Decreases inflammation
  • Decreases pain
  • Reduces swelling

How does ice work?

There are several theories about how ice decreases pain. Some of them are:
1. Decreased nerve transmission in pain fibers
2. Cold raises the pain threshold
3. Cold sensations over-ride the pain sensations
4. Cold causes a release of endorphins
5. Cold reduces the activity of free nerve endings

Ice causes a narrowing of blood vessels and cools the surface of the skin and underlying tissue. This can also attribute to decrease in pain as the pressure from swelling decreases.

The Four Stages of Ice

You will experience 4 stages when applying ice. These stages are referred to by the acronym COBAN.

  • CO = Cold
  • B =    Burning
  • A =    Analgesia (pain relief)
  • N =    Numbness

Each of these stages lasts a few minutes. So, to maximize the effects of ice therapy you need to apply it for a minimum of 10 minutes, with 20 minutes being optimal.  Do not place ice directly on the skin. Always put a piece of cloth over the skin first (you don’t want it to be too cold!).

Heat – The Details

  • Relaxes tight muscles and joints
  • Increases blood flow
  • Relieves pain

Flexibility of soft tissue increases, and muscle tissue relaxes.

How does heat work?

Heat opens up blood vessels and allows more blood flow to the affected area. The increased blood flow helps remove waste products and “debris” that are by-products of tissue injury. The increased blood flow also helps to facilitate in the delivery of more nutrients to the affected area.

Heat therapy is often used for the relief of muscular and joint pain, it is believed that pain reduction is caused by altering pain nerve fiber conduction speeds, or by raising nerve pain thresholds.

Always Use Moist Heat!

When using heat it is important to remember that dry heat can dehydrate soft tissues and interfere with healing, so moist heat should be used whenever possible. One reason moist heat works better is because water transfers heat quicker than air does. Many physical therapists recommend that you should follow heat with ice for 30 to 60 seconds. Opinions vary on the length of time you should apply heat, with some professionals recommending 5 minutes, and others 20 minutes.

[box type="info" style="rounded" border="full"]Always consult your physician to find out what is the best heat/ice therapy for you.[/box]

Do-It-Yourself Ideas for Ice and Heat

Give your aching TMJ an ice massage!  Freeze water in a paper or styrofoam cup, then when frozen tear off the edges to expose some of the ice. Rub the ice over the TMJ for 5 to 8 minutes.

Want to create your own heating pad?

Fill a tube sock with uncooked rice and tie a knot at the top. Put in the microwave for 30 seconds to 1 minute increments until it is the right temperature for you. You can also put a few drops of essential oils in the rice before knotting the top. Personally, I’m a fan of lavender, but others like eucalyptus, peppermint, roman chamomile, or clary sage.

Do you have a favorite heating pad or ice pack? Tell us about it! Also, what do you think works better for you…. ice or heat?

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