Heat vs. Ice: Should You Use Heat or Ice for Your Pain?

Learn When to Use Heat and When to Use Ice for Your Aches and Pains

woman icing painful knee
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There is a long-standing debate among pin suffers as to whether ice or heat is better for different types of aches and pains. Some people insist that heat is the best thing for pain, while others tell you to ice it. So how do you know which one to use? Here is a simple guideline for determining which one to try first.

Will Heat Help My Pain?

Before using heat, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Has your injury healed?
  • Are your muscles tight and tender?
  • Is your pain located in your joints or muscles?

The answers to these questions are relevant because of how heat works to relieve certain types of pain.

When to Use Heat for Pain

Heat can be an effective form of pain relief if muscle tension increases your pain. It can also help "loosen" stiff joints. This makes it appropriate for musculoskeletal conditions, such as arthritis and old muscle strains or sprains.

When Not to Use Heat

However, heat is not effective and may be detrimental for cases of acute pain caused by new injuries, such as a sudden sprain or strain to an extremity as heat can increase swelling and inflammation. Heat should also not be used on broken or damaged skin or on areas with cancerous tumors.

When to Use Ice for Pain

If your injury is new, ice may be the answer. Ice can help to decrease swelling and bleeding, and can reduce bruising caused by trauma. Ice isn't only for new injuries, however: it can numb sensitive areas and decrease pain sensations caused by chronic conditions as well.

In fact, ice can be an effective pain reliever for many chronic pain conditions, including:

A Little of Both? Combining Ice and Heat Treatments for Pain

Many treatments for pain include the use of both heat and ice, with recommended exercise or stretching in the middle. For certain types of pain and injuries, you can apply heat to a muscle to warm it up, stretch and strengthen it, and then finish it off with a little ice to cool it down. It's not exactly a spa treatment, but it helps many people tolerate the exercises used in therapy that will benefit them.

The Heat vs. Ice Bottom Line

If you're unsure of whether to use heat or ice on your aches and pains, consult your doctor or physical therapist. Your treatment recommendation should be based on the cause and source of your pain and where you are in treatment or the healing process. Be your own advocate and educate yourself on the best approach for pain relief. 

Other Pain and Injury Resources

For more resources on treating different types of pain with heat, cold, or both, be sure to check out these resources.

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Article Sources

  • Belanger, Alain-Yvan. "Evidence-Based Guide to Therapeutic Physical Agents" Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 2003
  • Gould, Harry J. "Understanding Pain: What it Is, Why it Happens and How It’s Managed" New York: AAN Press 2007