Ice vs Heat: Which One Is Right?

When something hurts, is it better to use ice or heat?  It’s common to suffer from a headache, strain your back, or pull a muscle or ligament.  Most of us don’t get through life without some wear and tear.  Ice and heat are easy and natural ways to relieve pain.  


In general, ice (cryotherapy) is used for acute injuries less than six weeks old.  It helps to reduce swelling and inflammation, and numbs pain.  Symptoms from strains, sprains, tendonitis, and bruises can safely be relieved with application of ice to your skin.  Almost any situation where tissue has been inflamed by trauma is a candidate for ice.


  • Ice packs come in a variety of sizes and shapes.  When ice is first applied it will feel really cold.  Next it will feel almost burning or aching.  Finally, it will feel numb.  When it’s numb, it’s time to remove it.  Generally, it will take ten to fifteen minutes to get numb depending on how thick the area is.  Gel packs are great for wrapping around a smaller area.  If you don’t have a gel pack, try a bag of frozen corn or peas.  Ice cubes in a baggie with a bit of water also works well.  


  • Apply ice to the affected area three to four times a day for the first 48 hours, or until the inflammation, swelling and tenderness is gone.  Use ice massage to treat elbow and heel problems.  Freeze water is a small paper cup.  Then peel off the top of the cup until the ice is exposed.  Massage the painful area until it’s numb, usually three to five minutes.


  • Heat is most often used for muscle pain and chronic pain (duration of longer than six weeks).  It relaxes tight muscles and increases blood flow.  Trigger points (knots in muscles) usually respond well to heat.  Joints with arthritis and worn cartilage can also be improved with heat applications.


  • Dry heat and moist heat are the two most commonly used types of heat.  Both should be warm but not hot.  Neither should be used on swollen or recently bruised tissue.  People with diabetes or multiple sclerosis should not use heat therapy because they have a higher risk of burns and other complications.   Take a hot bath or shower for moist heat.  Use a microwave hot pack or a heating pad for dry heat.  Heat application can last a bit longer than ice therapy, generally 15 to 30 minutes.  


To learn more about using ice and heat call our office at 423-485-8480.

When it comes to your health, we’ve got your back!