Feeling pain? Here’s when to use ice or heat to get relief

Feeling pain? Here’s when to use ice or heat to get relief

It is not always easy to get through life without injuring a muscle, spraining a ligament, suffering a headache, or injuring your back. And the longer you exist, the more likely you are to suffer from arthritis.

But, if something hurts, what kind of thing will make it feel better: ice or heat? And what is its function, and when is it useful to use both? Our experts considered and analyzed many ice or heat situations and came up with some generalizations for other situations.

When to chill and when to heat

Medications prescribed by your doctor can help cope with a number of physical symptoms. And OTC medications may be sufficient to relieve pain in more casual situations. However, you might still be hoping to find other relief so remember these tips when deciding between ice and heat for painful muscles and joints.

Acute injuries

When treating injuries, it’s smart to use cooler treatment in the early stages (less than 6 weeks old). Ice constricts the blood vessels, which reduces pain and swelling, favors healing, and decreases bruising. 

If your injuries have not yet been fully healed (and are more than 6 weeks old), it’s okay to use heat. This will increase blood flow and relax tight muscles, which will relieve aching joints. This can be very helpful in restoring the range of motion on a limb that is not moving well.


Pain or inflammation caused by worn-away cartilage in joints can cause pain and discomfort in joints like your elbows, knees, shoulders, and fingers. For these instances, a warm soak, such as one obtained in a bathtub or shower of warm water that is not too hot (92–100 °F), can be helpful.

Gout flare-ups

Ice is one of the most effective arthritis therapy tools in regard to gout attacks. When sudden pain and inflammation impacts a certain joint, ice can help alleviate the inflammation and also reduce sensitivity.


Who hasn’t been affected by a headache of some sort? Some are milder, and can easily be solved with OTC pain relievers, while some may need extra measures for relief. Ice can help relieve pain in your head. Ice is typically used to treat migraines, whereas moist heat or a heat wrap can be used for temporary neck spasms that contribute to migraines.

Muscle strains and sprains

Muscle aches and sprains often benefit from a combination of cold and heat. If you have a minor muscle strain in your calf or back doing yard work, or if you have sprained your ankle playing basketball, it is best to begin with an ice pack to decrease inflammation and numb pain. Only after the swelling has resolved should you switch to heat. Care for any muscle stiffness at the injury site.


Tendinitis is an inflammation of the tendons that sometimes cause injury to certain areas of your body. It is common in the elbow, knee, shoulder, hip, and Achilles tendon. Besides the well-known strategies to alleviate discomfort rests, pauses, and withdrawal of responsibility to activities triggering pains, OTC pain relievers ice has proven helpful in reducing soreness and numbing the pain.


Tendinosis involves irritation and stiffness of tendons transferred to joints. Because this kind of condition is caused by irritation of tendons in the joints, medications and heat are helpful for easing pain. As soon as the inflammation does resolve, heat is especially effective.

How to safely apply ice and heat

You can apply ice and heat in lots of ways. Our experts generally recommend up to 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off: 

  • Frozen peas or corn, ice cubes, in a baggie or frozen in gel cool wrap. You can freeze for up to 48 hours until swelling, tenderness, or inflammation are gone.
  • Place ice in a Dixie cup, peel the top off and massage the tender area until it’s numbed. (Best for targeted icing after injury or in awkward locations, such as elbows or heels).
  • Store a cold mask, which can be found at most pharmacies, over your eyes or lay a towel that has been soaked in cold water on your forehead and temples.
  • Moist heat: Enjoy a bath, shower, hot tub, or whirlpool using warm, not hot, water (92-100°).
  • Wrap a heating bandage, which is available at many pharmacies, around your neck like a scarf (useful for work or travel).
  • Heating pads: To avoid burns, remove heating pads if the area becomes uncomfortably warm.
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