Heat vs. Ice For Pain Relief

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woman putting an ice pack on her arm pain

Pain; we want it to go away as fast as it comes. But pain relief can be tricky. You may think, do I apply ice where I am feeling pain or heat? Is there a difference between the two? Ice seems too cold and wet, especially in winter months and the heat seems welcoming and inviting. Don’t just go for the more comfortable option when the less appealing is actually what you need.

Breaking down the difference between heat and ice for optimal pain relief


When an area has become inflamed, it turns red, warm, painful, or swells, then ice should be used initially for pain relief.

Ice is also used in the beginning as treatment for sprains, strains, and other injuries. The coldness makes the blood vessels in the painful area become narrower and slows down blood flow, which helps with pain relief initially. It will numb the area and reduce the build up of fluids, limiting the chances of bruising.

Using ice as a pain reliever is only recommended for 15-20 minute applications, 4-6 times within the first 48 hours of injury. Applying ice too often can result in tissue damage or even frostbite. Also, having the ice come into direct contact with the skin can cause more harm than good. Always put some sort of light barrier in between the cold and skin. Combine this with rest and elevation, and the pain should start to subside.


Heat for pain relief is recommended for chronic pain and new muscular pains. When muscles become sore or stiff, then it is a good time to apply a heat because it will open the blood vessels, flushing away the chemicals that cause pain. When muscles are over worked and become sore lactic acid starts to accumulate and deprive the muscles of oxygen. Heat will also bring nutrients and oxygen to the affected area.

When using heat for pain relief it is important not to let the temperature get too hot. Try to maintain the temperature as warm. If you are using a hot pack, limit the time to 15-20 minutes. Always have a barrier in between the skin and heat because it can cause your skin to overheat and burn. Never sleep with a hot pad on.

The benefits of heat therapy for pain relief can work long after the application has been removed. Things like steamed towels, reusable gel packs or hot baths can be used for pain relief. Stay hydrated while using heat.

Heat vs. Ice: What to Use for Which Injury

  • Arthritis: Heat
  • Glout: Ice
  • Headache: Heat
  • Strains: Ice
  • Sprains: Either
  • Tendinitis: Ice
  • Tendinosis: Heat
  • Back Pain: Heat


Although heat and ice are a good choice for immediate pain relief, they do not solve the underlying cause of your pain. Pain can be managed and our specialists are great at doing just that! Schedule an appointment with IMS Pain Management today.

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