Should You Use Ice or Heat For Pain?



There can be a lot of confusion and questions when it comes to how best to treat an injury, ache, or pain. One big question that typically comes up is – ice or heat? Cold and heat therapies can be very beneficial when treating various ailments, however they can also do more harm than good if they aren’t implemented properly or under the right circumstances.

Acute Vs. Chronic Injuries

An important distinction to make before applying cold or heat therapy is whether your injury is acute or chronic. An acute injury is one that occurs suddenly as the result of a single event or accident (for example: a torn muscle, snapped ligament, sprains, etc.).

On the other hand, a chronic injury occurs over time as the result of overuse. These develop slowly, and typically last a long time (for example: stress fractures, tennis elbow, etc.).

Why is this distinction so important? Because you do not want to use heat therapy as a first line of defense for acute injuries! Simply stated, when a sudden event or movement disrupts your body and causes sudden swelling, applying ice will help constrict your blood vessels in that area, which aids in the reduction of swelling. Applying heat, on the other hand, will further open the blood vessels and can cause swelling to worsen.

Unlike acute injuries, chronic injuries where joints have become stiff and muscles are tight can benefit greatly from heat therapy to help ease the tension.

What is the best way to treat an injury?

What should you do with an injury that you’re unsure how to treat?

When in doubt, RICE! R.I.C.E. is an acronym for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation, and is typically the best first aid to apply to injuries. Rest will minimize movement of the injured area, and the combination of applying an ice pack, applying light pressure, and elevating the injured body part will reduce blood pressure and help pull excess fluids away from that area.

This is a useful method that you can implement until you have a chance to visit your doctor. No matter what type of injury you think you have, you should always get it checked out by your doctor to identify the injury and determine the best course of treatment.

Feel free to come by to visit Dr. Hinz or Dr. Bechtel so they can evaluate your injury and provide next steps – whether it’s a chiropractic adjustment, at home therapy, or a visit to your orthopedic doctor.

How to apply cold and heat therapy

Once you’ve determined whether heat or cold therapy is best for your particular injury, it’s important to implement each method correctly to prevent any further injury to the body.

When using cold therapy, the ice pack should be applied over a moist towel for no more than 15-20 minutes, and then removed for at least 20-40 minutes or until the skin has returned to it’s normal color and temperature (whichever takes longer) before applying again. If a cold pack is applied directly to the skin, or is left on for too long, it can cause frostbite and other harm to your body.

When using heat therapy, the application should also be minimized to 20 minutes at a time, and the number of times a day that it should be applied can be recommended by a doctor. Again, it’s important not to overheat or burn the body with too hot or too long of a treatment (for example, falling asleep with a heating pad!)


When used correctly, cold and heat therapies can help alleviate the pain and discomfort of various injuries and ailments.

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