Heat and Cold Treatment: Which is Best?

An individual who has an injury will typically reach for an ice pack and/or heating pad to help alleviate their symptoms. Treating pain with a hot and/or cold element can be extremely effective, however; in many instances it is unclear to know which situation calls for which particular element.

Let's review the benefits of both options to help you determine which method would be best for treating your pain.  

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy works by improving overall circulation and blood flow to a particular area due to the increased temperature. Increasing the temperature in the area of concern can help to soothe discomfort, relax muscles and heal damaged tissue.

Types of heat therapy
There are two types of heat therapy:

  • Dry Heat - Includes sources like heating pads, dry heating packs or even saunas
  • Moist Heat - Includes sources like steamed towels, moist heating packs or hot baths

When should you use heat therapy
It's best to use heat therapy for muscle pain or stiffness. Whereas, it's best to use cold therapy if any bruising is present.

Applying heat therapy
Heat therapy does best when used for a decent amount of time. Minor stiffness can often be relieved with only 15-20 minutes of heat therapy. Whereas, moderate to severe pain can benefit from a longer sessions, lasting 30-45 minutes.  

Cold Therapy

Cold therapy works by reducing blood flow, inflammation, and swelling that causes pain in a particular region, especially around a joint or tendon area. Also, it can help to reduce nerve activity which relieves pain.

Types of cold therapy
There are several different ways to apply cold therapy to an area of concern including:

  • Ice packs
  • Frozen gel packs
  • Cooling sprays or gels
  • Ice baths

When should you use cold therapy
It's best to use cold therapy after an acute injury where swelling has occurred. We do not recommend cold therapy for individuals with poor circulation and stiff muscles or joints.

Applying cold therapy
One should utilize cold therapy for a short time span, several times a day for a duration of 10-15 minutes. It is best to elevate the affected area as much as possible while icing. Under no circumstances, should an individual place an ice pack on their skin before wrapping it in a towel as it can cause damage to your skin.

Both hot and cold therapy can help to significantly reduce the pain and discomfort associated with injury.

A quick rule of thumb: Use ice for acute injuries or pain, along with inflammation and swelling. Use heat for muscle pain, tenderness or stiffness. If either treatment should make the pain or discomfort worsen, discontinue use and schedule an appointment to see your doctor.