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Sheltering Arms Blog

Heat vs. Ice – Which is Better for Your Pain?

Posted on: November 26, 2019 by Sheltering Arms

By: Kimberly Johnson, PT, MSPT, OCS, Cert. DN

You have pain and swelling, but should you reach for an ice pack or a heating pad to find relief? The purpose of heat or cold therapy is to temporarily make you feel better so you can move easier. If you’re trying to decide between cold therapy and heat therapy, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What type of pain do you have?
  • Where is your pain located?
  • What does your doctor recommend?
  • What relief do you get from each temperature?

Conditions where cold therapy works best

  • Cold therapy can be particularly helpful if you have an overuse injury like shin splints or tendinitis and a muscle or joint is swollen and painful following exercise.
  • Cold therapy may also feel best on a flaring arthritic joint.
  • For acute injuries like pulled muscles, joint sprains, or traumatic tendonitis when swelling is noted, a good rule of thumb is to use cold therapy for the first 48-72 hours after swelling and pain have peaked.

Conditions where heat works best

  • For low back pain, heat therapy has a slight edge over cold. It often works best in conjunction with other treatments such as exercise, physical therapy, and medication.
  • If you have a sore or painful muscle or a very stiff joint, heat therapy may be your best bet to relieve symptoms.
  • After the first 48-72 hours of using cold therapy for acute injuries like pulled muscles, heat therapy may be more advisable as you enter days 3-7, or for prolonged symptoms lasting beyond a week.

Conditions where heat or cold may work best

According to the Arthritis Foundation, heat or cold may help with arthritis pain. It is often a matter of trial and error to find which works better for you.

Examples of heat treatments

Possible heat treatments are a warm bath/shower, hot water bottle, and moist heating pad. Heat should be comfortably warm and applied for 20-30 minutes. Use caution to avoid burns and check for extreme redness. Do not fall asleep when using an electric heating pad and remove jewelry on and around the area being heated. Pregnant women, children, and people with a history of multiple sclerosis should avoid heat therapy.

Examples of cold treatments

Cold treatment options include the use of an ice pack made of ice cubes, commercial ice packs, or a basin of cold water for hands and feet. During icing, watch for hypersensitivity or allergies related to cold indicated by increased burning or cold reactions that last longer than several minutes.

Heat and cold therapy are just some of the features in the Sheltering Arms Rest and Recovery program. Whole-body vibration, stretching, and Hypervolt percussion massage are also offered through this program for all fitness levels. To find out how this program can be beneficial to your specific needs or to schedule a session, call (804) 764-5275 or click here.