When To Use Heat or Ice To Treat Pain

If you’re dealing with any injury – whether it’s chronic or acute – heat or ice can be a great tool to help manage your pain. Many times our patients will ask us whether they should be using heat or ice when treating their specific muscle pain. While there are times that these methods are interchangeable, we’re setting the record straight on when you should reach for the icepack or heating pad.


How Does Ice Treat Pain?

Contrary to what many believe, research shows that ice does not actually decrease swelling or slow down the inflammation process. However, it can be effective in decreasing pain! It distracts those nagging tiny nerve fibers that send pain signals to the brain. This occurs because cold temperature signals are sent to the brain using much larger nerve fibers, which overpowers the tiny nerves that cause pain, and therefore decreases pain! Remember to always protect your skin when applying ice to an injury and limit its use to 20 minutes at a time.


Take out the ice pack when you’re experiencing bruising, swelling, and redness. You’ll also feel relief when using ice to reduce inflammation from sprains, strains, and tendinitis.


How Does Heat Treat Pain?

Heat can also be effective in decreasing pain! It increases skin temperature and blood flow to the area which can cause increased muscle relaxation and a flow of nutrients to the area to help with healing and decreased stiffness.


You’ll typically feel relief when using heat for arthritis and for sprains, strains, and tendinosis after swelling decreases.


Which One Should I Use?

It is often preference! We recommend trying out both methods to see what feels best for you. But there are times when you should refrain from using one or the other:

  • Do not use heat on an acute injury or if there is swelling! It can increase the swelling or cause further inflammation and pain.

  • It’s not generally recommended to use ice right before you exercise, although this may be dependent on an individual and their specific diagnosis. We typically recommend heat to use before a workout.

  • Use heat if you’re trying to “loosen up” a muscle that feels tight, like chronic neck pain or low back pain


Consult a Physical Therapist

Sustaining an injury or experiencing chronic pain can leave you feeling defeated. However, working with a physical therapist can help you can get back to living without pain or limitation. Performance Physical Therapy has many clinics across Rhode Island and Massachusetts where you can treat your pain and get back to your favorite activities. Schedule an appointment with an experienced physical therapist at 401.726.7100.

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