Hot and Cold: Here’s What You Need to Know About Heat Therapy vs. Ice Therapy

Originally featured on Kalista Beauty 07/21

Fiery orange fist reaching up toward a blue icy fist

Whether you’ve sprained your ankle, pulled a muscle or are simply dealing with aches and pains, there’s always the debate about whether to use heat or ice to get the most relief.

Both heat and ice are able to alleviate pain, and both help to minimize discomfort and pressure around injuries or aching body parts. This can make it even more confusing to know when to apply heat versus ice.

In an effort to help you live your best, most pain-free life, I’m going to break down how heat and ice therapy work and give you some general guidelines that will help you decide which is best for your issues.

As always, I’m not a doctor, so this isn’t medical advice! This is just your neighborhood Mom Friend offering to clear up some confusion. If you have chronic pain, medical issues, or think you might have really injured yourself, please go see a doctor!

When Should I Use Heat Therapy?

Heat therapy and ice therapy have a lot of overlap when it comes to reducing discomfort and pain. They often seem interchangeable, and doing a quick Google search doesn’t really clear up the confusion about which to use for different kinds of pain.

Heat therapy (aka thermotherapy) is obviously hot. Increasing the temperature of certain areas of the body improves circulation, relaxes muscle tension, and lessens pain. If you have chronic conditions like arthritis or old injuries that act up, heat is usually the best option. Increasing blood flow and circulation with heat therapy is ideal for relaxing stiff, aching muscles or joints.

However, it’s important to remember that heat can actually make swelling worse for fresh injuries, so it’s best not to apply heat to anything that’s less than 6 weeks old (unless a doctor says it’s okay). A warm compress might feel more soothing than ice, but applying heat too soon can actually slow the healing process and make things worse!

Important note: Warm is better than scalding hot, even though extra hot might feel good. You won’t get any extra benefits from the greater temperature, but you will increase your risk for burns!

When Should I Use Ice Therapy?

Cold therapy (aka ice therapy or cryotherapy) essentially performs the opposite task of heat therapy. Instead of promoting additional blood flow, it constricts blood vessels and reduces blood flow to a particular area. It can also cause numbness and reduce nerve activity. All of these effects are great for lessening pain and easing muscle spasms.

Physical therapists often recommend only using ice on fresh or acute injuries. It works best to dull pain and quickly minimize swelling that comes with a new injury. Ice usually isn’t the best choice for chronic conditions because it can cause joints to feel stiffer and more painful.

With ice therapy, it’s best to do several short sessions throughout the day. Icing an area for more than 20 minutes at a time can increase the risk of damaging the nerves or tissues you’re trying to help!

A Few Tips For Choosing the Right Treatment

There are plenty of cases where it’s appropriate to use both heat and ice. Confusing, I know.

In most cases, there are a few general rules.

Use heat when:

  • You need muscle relaxation
  • You want to improve circulation
  • You have chronic aches and pains (neck pain, back pain, old injuries)
  • You want to loosen up before strenuous activity

Use ice when:

  • You have a fresh or acute injury
  • You want to reduce swelling
  • You want to numb pain
  • You want to ease muscle spasms

In most instances, if you’re going to use both heat and ice for the same body part, it’s best to start with ice. This limits swelling and eases immediate pain. Following up with heat can help reduce the stiffness that often comes with icing an area.

The Cleveland Clinic offers more in-depth tips and information about the benefits of heat and ice therapy too, so you can bookmark that link as a helpful reference for specific conditions like migraines, arthritis, and tendinitis.

A woman with her back to the camera holding her left shoulder in pain.

Heat therapy and ice therapy are both great tools for managing pain and injuries, but it’s important to know how and when to use them! Above all else, if your pain and swelling don’t go away with a few days of at-home heating or icing, it’s time to see a doctor.

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