Ice or Heat for Pain?


It’s hard to get through life without straining a muscle, spraining a ligament, suffering a headache or wrenching your back - and the longer you’re on the planet, the more susceptible you are to arthritis. But, when something hurts, what will make it feel better - ice or heat?


Acute injuries Do not use heat on acute injuries (less than 1 week old) because that extra heat can increase inflammation and delay proper healing. When dealing with injuries, it’s best to predominantly choose ice if the injury is acute. The chill constricts blood vessels which numbs pain, relieves inflammation and limits bruising.


Lingering injuries If you’re dealing with lingering injuries (older than 2 weeks) then it’s okay to use heat. The increased blood flow relaxes tight muscles and relieves aching joints. This is especially helpful to improve range of motion on a joint that maybe isn’t moving as well.


Arthritis The inflammation of joints or pain caused by worn-away cartilage in joints can cause pain and stiffness in places like your elbows, knees, shoulders and fingers, just to name a few. For these instances, moist heat, like a soak in a tub or shower of warm, but not hot water. Those with more chronic osteoarthritis usually feel better with heat.


Headaches Ice can help soothe throbbing pain in your head. Cold masks or wraps over the forehead, eyes and temples help the throbbing pain of a migraine. While ice is usually preferred for headaches, moist heat (hot shower or bath) or a heat pack can relax neck spasms that contribute to headaches.


Muscle strains and sprains Muscle strains and sprains usually benefit from a combo of both ice and heat when they occur. It’s best to start off with ice to ease inflammation (including swelling, redness or tenderness of the injury) and numb the pain. Only after the inflammation resolves should you to switch to heat. This can help relieve any muscle stiffness at the injury site by increasing blood flow to the area.

How to safely apply ice and heat Ice packs, frozen peas or corn or frozen gel pack are all safe to use and work well. You can ice beyond 48 hours until swelling, tenderness or inflammation are gone.


Moist heat: Enjoy a bath, shower, or hot tub using warm, but not hot water.

Heat packs: Drape a heat pack around your neck like a scarf (great for work or travel.)


Use heat before stretching or doing a home exercise program. You can still use ice or cold treatment after exercise or activities to prevent any flare of inflammation. Just remember “Warm up, cool down."