Hot or Cold? When to Use a Heating Pad or an Ice Pack

When you injure yourself while playing sports, exercising or simply moving heavy objects, you may think of reaching for a heating pad or an ice pack. However, depending on the kind of injury, the temperature of the treatment is important.

When to Use an Ice Pack

Generally, you should always rather choose an ice pack for injuries and inflammation. The cold restricts blood flow and reduces inflammation and swelling. If there is bleeding in the underlying tissue, for example in the case of a sprain, strain or bruising, then you should use ice.

There are two types of of ice treatments:
Immediate treatment reduces tissue fluid and prevents the injured area from becoming stiff. Using an ice pack in the first 48 hours of the injury will reduce swelling and pain.

Illustration of a woman experiencing pain in her shoulder.

Rehabilitation treatment helps to restore normal function to the area by reducing pain and spasms. Ice treatments can be used on overuse injuries in athletes to reduce the swelling after an activity. However, chronic injuries should never be treated with ice before an activity.

Cold therapy is not always appropriate for patients with bad circulation. Applying an ice pack for too long or directly onto the skin can result in tissue or nerve damage. Patients with cardiovascular disease should always consult with their doctor before using cold therapy.

When to Use a Heating Pad

Heat is the best treatment to use for relaxing muscles as it increases the blood flow to an affected area. This is why heat treatment is perfect for most aches and pains, and for repairing damaged tissue since increased blood flow stimulates healing. Minor stiffness and tension can usually be relieved with about 15 to 20 minutes of heat therapy. Heat treatment should also be used on chronic injuries or overuse injuries in athletes before an activity.

Heat treatments should not be used after an activity or after an acute injury. Do not use heat on an area that is swelling and inflamed as the heat will cause the tissue to bleed and continue to swell.

Heat therapy should never be hot enough to burn but only nice and warm. Never use heat near open wounds. Patients with heart disease or hypertension should consult their doctor before using this treatment.

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