Should You Use Heat or Ice for Pain Relief?

From the beginning of time, people have always used heat and cold to relieve pain and improve the functions of different parts of the body.

It is believed that the practice of using temperature dates back to ancient Greece, where people used extreme temperatures to derive many benefits.

Both can relieve pain without the need for medication, but which one actually does better? How do you know when to use them?

What is Cold Therapy?

Cold Therapy

There aren’t many people who have not used an ice pack after sustaining injuries. Ice is a famous first aid for dislocations and other kinds of injuries.

The official name for cold therapy is cryotherapy. After the initial shock of sitting through the freezing remedy, many people are often pleased to know that it actually works.

The science behind the effectiveness of cold therapy is simple. After the body goes through an injury, the blood cells suffer a leakage that surrounds the affected area, and this, in turn, leads to swelling.

By applying cold therapy, the person constricts the leaking blood vessels and stops further flow to the area. When the flow decreases, the swelling also reduces. With the swelling gone, the affected area resumes its normal functions.

What is Heat Therapy?

heat therapy

The official name for heat therapy is thermotherapy. Heat helps dilate the blood vessels. This means that it increases circulation to the affected area.

When the blood and oxygen supply to the affected area increases, it promotes healing in the tissues, muscles and bones. Heat works well as an analgesic for people living with chronic pain.

There are many types of heating products to include heating pads, hot water bottles, hot towels and hot baths. Heat therapy is available in moist or dry forms.

To get the best from heat therapy, heating pads are the best options for relieving pain because they deliver consistent heat, up to the required 20 minutes of application time. Heating pads are also great for pain relief because they are readily available in stores.

Differences Between Heat Therapy and Cold Therapy


1. Urgency

Cold therapy is the best option for a recent injury. It is also the best therapy for up to four days after the injury. The fact that cold therapy constricts the blood vessels makes it the best for reducing the damage of an injury and improving its appearance and severity.

Heat therapy, on the other hand, works when the injury has entered the chronic phase, that is after it has passed the one week mark. Applying heating pads for pain relief is useful because it opens up the blood vessels, which leads to better circulation of oxygen to the affected area.

2. Injuries

Heat therapy and cold therapy both work well for different conditions, but is important to know just when to use each one.

Cold therapy is suitable for the following conditions:

  • Muscle soreness.
  • Muscle tension
  • Sprains
  • Contusions
  • Strains
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Arthritis
  • Myofascial disorders
  • Whiplash
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Post-surgery
  • Dislocation
  • Acute Hematoma
  • Subluxations
  • Insect bites

The following conditions respond well to heat therapy:

3. Application

While cold can be administered immediately after the injury, it is not advisable to use heat during the first 48 hours. When it comes to application time, both heat therapy and cold therapy should be used no longer than 20 minutes per session. While it is good to use the coldest possible temperature in cold therapy, extremely hot heating pads could cause burns.

4. Precautions

Cold therapy and heat therapy should not be used in the case of:

  • People with circulatory problems.
  • People who are unconscious.
  • People who cannot feel the temperature (paralysis).
  • People who are allergic to cold.
  • People with loss of sensation.

In addition, heat therapy should also not be used if:

  • The person is taking drugs that may make them sleepy or drowsy.
  • Fresh injuries. Wait for 48 hours before switching from cold to heat.
  • If the area is swollen or inflamed, it is best to use cold therapy and not heat.

Cold therapy and heat therapy are popular treatment options for pain relief. It is important to know when an injury requires an ice pack and when to switch to a heating pad if you are trying to relief pain. Knowing this will help in reducing pain and discomfort without worsening the condition.


Madison Brown received her graduate degree from the University of Iowa from the physical therapy program. As a therapist for over five years, she has treated many patients with pain or with many physical problems. Through her experience she has learned more along the way how to best serve her patients. Her patients come into her office with all sorts of pain from head to toe. She has always made it her goal to know all the latest techniques and devices to best treat the patient in front of her. She cares about people and works for the best for her patients.

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