Hot and Cold: Understanding When to Use Ice vs. Heat
Injury Care & PreventionWellness Nov 25, 2019
Hot and Cold: Understanding When to Use Ice vs. Heat

Temperature therapy—or therapeutic use of heat or cold—is often the first treatment we turn to when we experience pain or soreness in our day-to-day lives. And there’s good reason for it. Applying heat or ice is a cheap, easy and relatively safe self-treatment option.

But do you know when you should use ice and when you should use heat? Marnie Kasinskas, Physical Therapy Assistant at the Orthology Maple Grove and Orthology Eden Prairie clinics in Minnesota has the guidance you need.

Read on to learn when (and why) you should use heat, and when it’s better to ice.

When to Ice

The primary reason to ice over heat is to control minor pain. Applying cold calms damaged superficial tissues—the layer of tissue between your skin and your muscles—that have become inflamed, or red, hot and swollen, due to an injury. While the inflammatory process is a part of our normal, natural, healthy response to injury, it can also be incredibly painful. Applying ice to dull the pain of inflammation is a great way to relieve that pain without using over-the-counter pain medication. 

Think of an acute injury you’ve experienced—perhaps a freshly sprained ankle or if you’ve ever hit your thumb with a hammer. If your goal is to find short-term pain relief, ice could be what helps you in the first 24 to 48 hours of your injury. 

But applying ice isn’t right for all pain. Icing a sore muscle or a trigger point, or what feels like a “knot” in your muscles, can actually make your pain worse.

When to Heat

When you’re feeling sore down into your muscles or you’re experiencing chronic pain, it’s time to bring the heat. Taking the edge off of muscle aches and stiffness, either related to trigger points or due to underlying causes, can help you regain better movement and mobility

Chronic pain, especially back pain, often comes hand-in-hand with tension, additional sensitivity and anxiety. Comfortable heat can help sooth not only your sore muscles, but can decrease your tension and anxiety. Stress and fear are often major factors in painful or chronic conditions.

A great time to apply heat is when your back muscles ache from a hard workout or from a weekend of packing and moving boxes, or if your neck tends to get sore at the end of a long work day. 

If you’re thinking of using heat to relieve pain from an injury, though, a good rule of thumb is to avoid applying heat for the first 48 hours. It might make you more swollen and end up increasing your pain. 

When to get an Expert Opinion

If you’re ever unsure whether applying ice or heat will be more beneficial, your Orthology-affiliated physical therapist or chiropractor will be able to help. And of course, if you’re still feeling pain after applying heat or ice, your provider can help with that too.