It’s hard to get through life without straining a muscle, spraining a ligament, or wrenching your back. When something hurts, ice and heat are often the go-to solutions, and using temperature therapy to complement medications and self-care can be very effective. But while both heat and cold can help reduce pain, it can be confusing to decide which is more appropriate depending on the injury. Our tips below give you the facts on when to use (and not use) heat and cold therapies.
When to Use Cold Therapy
Cold is best for acute pain caused by recent tissue damage is used when the injury is recent, red, inflamed, or sensitive. The inflammatory process is a healthy, normal, natural process that also can be incredibly painful. Here are some examples of common acute injuries:
- Ankle sprain
- Muscle or joint sprain
- Red, hot or swollen body part
- Acute pain after intense exercise
- Inflammatory arthritis flare ups
When you sprain something, you damage blood vessels causing swelling to occur. Applying something cold causes the blood vessels to constrict, reducing the swelling and limiting bruising. Cold therapy can also help relieve any inflammation or pain that occurs after exercise, which is a form of acute inflammation. However, unlike heat, you should apply ice after going for a run to reduce post-exercise inflammation.
Tips for Applying Cold
- Cold should only be applied locally and should never be used for more than 20 minutes at a time.
- Apply cold immediately after injury or intense, high-impact exercise.
- Always wrap ice packs in a towel before applying to an affected area.
- Do not use ice in areas where you have circulation problems.
When to Use Heat Therapy
While ice is used to treat acute pain, heat therapy is typically used for chronic pain or conditions. Unlike cold therapy’s ability to constrict blood vessels, heat allows for our blood vessels to expand and our muscles to relax. That’s why overworked muscles respond best to heat. Heat stimulates blood flow, relaxes spasms, and soothes sore muscles. Some common chronic conditions that heat is used to treat are:
- Muscle pain or soreness
- Stiff joints
Tips for Applying Heat
- Unlike cold therapy, heat should be applied before exercising. Applying heat after exercise can aggravate existing pain.
- Protect yourself from direct contact with heating devices. Wrapping heat sources in a folded towel can help prevent burns.
- Stay hydrated during heat therapy.
- Avoid prolonged exposure to heating sources.
Low Level Heat
If you find that heat helps ease your pain, try a continuous low-level heat wrap, available at most drugstores. You can wear a heat wrap for up to 8 hours, even while you sleep.
What to Avoid
Heat can make inflammation worse, and ice can make muscle tension and spasms worse, so be careful. Just like anything else, don’t overdo it! It’s normal for your skin to be a little pink after using cold and heat therapies, but if you start to notice any major skin irritation like hives, blisters or swelling, you should call your doctor. Otherwise, use whatever works for you depending on your condition. Both ice and heat can be very effective if used correctly!
About Emory Sports Medicine Center
At the Emory Sports Medicine Center, our experts specialize in advanced procedures to treat and repair a wide range of sports related injuries. Recently recognized as one of the nation’s TOP 50 orthopaedics programs, Emory Orthopaedics, Sports and Spine has 6 convenient locations across metro Atlanta, as well as 6 physical therapy locations. Click to learn more >>
About Dr. Mines
Dr. Brandon Mines is board certified in both family practice and sports medicine. He has focused his clinical interest on sports injuries and conditions of the shoulder, elbow, wrist/hand, knee, foot and ankle. He is head team physician for the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) Atlanta Dream, Decatur High School and a team physician for NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. He is also a rotational physician for United States soccer teams.
Dr. Mines enjoys giving talks and lectures regarding the prevention of sports injuries. In fact, as an active member of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the American Society for Sports Medicine, Dr. Mines has attended and presented at various national conferences. Through the years, he has helped all levels of athletes return to the top of their game.