Ice vs. Heat Therapy

You must decide between ice and heat as the ideal treatment option when you want relief for your pain, either after an injury or dealing with it long-term. There’s a good chance that you’ve heard both are good options. However, you might be doing yourself a disservice if you choose one over the other.

Although ice and heat therapy are associated with pain relief, the two are used very differently. Understanding the benefits of both heat and cold therapy and when to use each will help you promote faster recovery and keep your muscles feeling strong.

What Are the Benefits of Ice Therapy?

Cold therapy, sometimes called cryotherapy, refers to the process of applying ice or cold water to an injury and provides several benefits. Applying ice to an injury constricts the blood vessels, which can help reduce swelling and pain after an injury. Cold therapy also reduces nerve activity, promoting a less severe pain response.

People use cold therapy for a wide range of injuries, like runner’s knee, arthritis, sprains, and more. Ice therapy is one of the most popular interventions when pain first arises in the body.

What Are the Benefits of Heat Therapy?

Heat therapy refers to applying heat to an injured or pain-stricken area. Heat treatment can be done in several ways, including using heat packs, sitting in a hot tub, or having a bath with hot water. 

Heat treatment can also help warm-up muscles before activity, improve blood flow to a target area, and relieve muscle tension.

Ice vs. Heat: Which Is Better?

As you can see, ice and heat offer individual benefits, but they are not interchangeable. Which form of pain-relief therapy is better depends on when you use it. Here is everything you need to know about deciding when to use each approach.

When To Use Ice Therapy

Ice therapy is the best option for acute injuries that lead to inflammation. Because ice helps to constrict the blood vessels and decreases swelling, you should use ice directly after sustaining an injury. Ice is the best first step if you experience an injury due to force or begin to feel pain after your workout.

Directly after an injury, your body begins to cause swelling in the injured area. Ice helps to counteract this process and minimize blood flow to the area. The worst of the swelling normally lasts about 72 hours after the injury occurs. After this, it is better to switch to heat.

Still, the general rule of thumb is that ice is the better choice over heat if you are dealing with pain in your bones or joints — even if the pain lasts longer than a few days.

When To Use Heat Therapy

While ice therapy helps directly after an injury, heat therapy is a better option for managing chronic pain and pain that lasts after an injury. After icing an injury for 72 hours after the initial injury, you should switch to applying heat. Generally, heat is best used for muscle pain, tight muscles, or soft tissue injuries. As a result, it is a good choice for back pain management.

You also do not have to be in pain to use heat therapy to your advantage. Using a heating pad is a common sports medicine technique for warming up your muscles before exercise, helping to improve your performance and range of motion. You can also use heat for soreness, overuse, and calming muscle spasms.

How To Use Ice Therapy

The easiest way to perform ice therapy is to apply an ice pack or a bag of ice cubes to the affected area. However, you can also use an ice bath.

To perform a cold treatment:

  • Grab an ice pack or a frozen pack of vegetables.
  • Use a cloth or towel around the ice pack to prevent direct contact with your skin.
  • Try to apply the ice as quickly as possible after the injury.
  • Apply the ice to the affected area, or sit in an ice bath, for about 20 minutes.
  • Take a break from the ice for at least 10 minutes.
  • Repeat this process at least four times a day.

Always remember it is a good idea to respond to an injury with ice, but you should not assume ice is enough to treat your injury. Consider seeking advice from a health professional after a big injury, especially if you are having a hard time moving the injured area or something does not look right. Only a trained doctor can tell you if your injury is more serious and will require more advanced treatment.

How To Use Heat Therapy

The heat treatment route provides several options, like using a heat pack or heating pad, taking hot baths, or sitting in a hot tub. If you do not have a heat pack, you can run a cloth under hot water or place a damp cloth in the dryer to create a moist heat pack. Like ice treatment, you’ll want to apply heat in intervals.

To use heat therapy properly:

  • Apply the heat using a heat pack or sitting in a hot tub
  • Avoid direct contact of the heat source with your skin by using a cloth barrier
  • Apply the heat for no more than 20 minutes at a time
  • Do not repeat your heat treatment until the next day

If your heat treatment doesn’t seem to relieve your pain over time, you should consult a healthcare professional for additional treatment options.

Remember that heat therapy is not your only option for chronic pain. Another great choice is using recovery wear products, like Incrediwear. Similar to a heat treatment, Incrediwear helps to improve blood flow to the target area, improving the movement of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. 

Incrediwear products use built-in semiconductor technology, so you don’t have to worry about using a heat or ice pack.

Tackle Pain at Any Temperature

Ice and heat therapy are both great tools that have their benefits in different situations. However, heat and ice are not the only tools to help you manage and relieve your pain. Incrediwear products with semiconductor technology can help provide pain relief just by wearing a comfortable sleeve or brace.

By improving blood flow to an affected area, Incrediwear products optimize the natural healing process. From back braces to knee sleeves, pain can be managed almost anywhere in the body. Explore our full collection of wearable recovery products and take care of your pain no matter where it is.


Cold Therapy | University of Rochester

The Benefits of Heat and Cold Therapy for Chronic Pain | US Pain Foundation

When to use ice or heat on an injury | OSF HealthCare

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