Is heat or ice better?

Does it really matter if you use heat or ice when you have an injury?

Can you cause yourself more problems if you use one versus the other?

Do you just avoid it all together?

A lot of people wind up avoiding using heat or ice all together because they’re afraid they’re going to pick the wrong one.

Just as a quick rule when in doubt ice.

But don’t fear you won’t completely mess things up if you apply heat.  If you like heat more than ice, then you can use heat and not worry about damaging anything.


When using heat, you should never use it for more than 15 minutes and it shouldn’t be directly on your skin.

You should have at least a layer of clothing in between the hot pack and your skin.  And the same can be said with ice you want to make sure there’s a layer of clothing in between the ice and your skin.

Heat is designed to increase the blood flow to the area.

And yes, there are a lot of studies that refute the benefits of both heat and ice.  But as an at home remedy both can work quite effectively.

When you are using heat, it is best to use a hot pack that doesn’t plug in, so it will cool down, if you happen to fall asleep while using the heat, which is common.  Taking a hot shower is a wonderful way to heat sore muscles.

Heat is most often recommended before stretching or foam rolling.  Or if you have a stiff neck, stiff back and want to get rid of that stiff feeling.

When you heat muscles, you will loosen up the muscles.  Meaning the muscles will become longer and relaxed.  You don’t want to immediately exercise after applying heat or you could strain the relaxed muscles.

Stiffness and soreness are great reasons to use heat.  Most of us experience that after a long day or work or waking up in the morning.

However, some people experience stiffness in their back during the work day after sitting for too long.  It is perfectly okay to use heat during the day too for 15 minutes, just make sure that you are not going to do some strenuous exercise immediately after the heat.


If you were in an accident or you are in pain, then you use ice.  If you go home from a long day of work and can barely move or if you know you did something to hurt yourself then you want to put ice on it.

I’m always amazed at how many people come in here post-surgery and don’t ice it every day.  Post-surgery, whether there is pain or not, whether the drugs block the pain or not, you need to ice.  Ice will help decrease the inflammation.

When you put ice on you want to put it on for 15 minutes.  You want to do this a couple times a day, ice works much better than more often you do it.  Take about an hour break in between ice sessions.

Never directly apply the ice on the skin.

It doesn’t have to be a fancy ice pack, but it does matter that you apply it right on the area and then elevate it if possible.  Sit there and relax.

If you have compression with ice – even better.  Compression can be just an ace wrap that presses the ice to the body part.  Compression and elevation and icing is going to give you the best results.

Many people experience pain during the work day, back pain, neck pain, elbow pain and so on.  If you are someone who experience pain at work have an ice pack handy at work.  Put the ice right on the body part that hurts.

You don’t have to see swelling to ice.  Sometime swelling is present, but you can’t see it.  If there is pain, there is inflammation, even if you can’t see it.

Ice beats Advil, Aleve, Flexeril anything they are handing out.  Ice can have a greater effect than any medications that people ingest.

The first line of defense is always ice.

One day of ice is not going to stop the pain.  Make sure that you are icing every day AND if you have the ability do it more than once a day.

If you only can ice once a day wait until the end of the day, when you have completed all your activities.  Putting it on after you are done with all your activities you will get the maximum benefit.

I often get asked when talking about ice, what about hopping into a cold ice bath.  That is an extreme approach, but it can work but no more than 7 minutes.

If you are experiencing pain and you live in Bucks or Montgomery County Pennsylvania and you would like to get an accurate assessment of whether you should be doing heat or ice, click here to schedule a FREE consultation with a Doctor of Physical Therapy.


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