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Ice vs. Heat for your injury: What’s the difference?

Ice vs. Heat for your injury: What’s the difference?
Ice vs. Heat for your injury: What’s the difference?

Whenever you hurt yourself, whether it’s by burning your hand on the stove, pulling a muscle while exercising or slamming your finger in a door, generally everyone has some method of treatment they prefer. “You should ice that,” some recommend, while others suggest heat.

You can’t blame people for trying to offer words of wisdom, but you need to know what’s truly right for your injury. If not, you may be making matters worse for yourself. Next time you find yourself with a painful ailment, keep this information in mind.


Icing, or cryotherapy, is a treatment for acute injuries. It should be a source of relief within the first 48 hours of the injury. It calms the damaged tissues when they are inflamed by vasoconstriction, or closing of the small blood vessels. This helps limit the amount of swelling that occurs immediately after the injury. Though inflammation is a natural and normal process for healing, it can still be painful. Icing is a drugless way to control the discomfort from inflammation.

Ice should never be directly applied to the skin, and cold packs can be even colder than traditional ice. Be sure to wrap the ice or pack in a thin towel or washcloth. For feet or hand injuries, you can get the icing effect by soaking them in a bowl of icy water for 10 to 15 minutes.


Heating, or thermotherapy, is for sore muscles and chronic conditions. It helps relax and loosen tissues and stimulates blood flow to the affected area. Heat is a key treatment for postural muscles such as the lower back, mid-back and neck, and relieves both muscle soreness and spasms. It can also increase the range of motion and decrease pain stemming from osteoarthritis.

Heating is effective for treating overuse injuries before activity. Heat should not be used after activity or to treat an acute injury. If you have chronic conditions that become inflamed from overuse, ice may need to be involved after activity.

Popular heating methods include a heating pad or a hot, wet towel. Make sure you heat in moderation (30 minute intervals) and never while sleeping.

Why it’s important to know which to use

When ice is applied to painful muscles, it can actually aggravate them and cause trigger points and muscle spasms. This is because ice causes muscles to contract, compounding the pain.

When heat is applied to an acute injury, this can make the active swelling even worse, as heat causes vasodilatation (opening of the small blood vessels), the opposite of what ice does. If you have a swollen extremity and heat is applied, don’t be surprised if the inflammation worsens.

Whatever your injury, ice and heat are inexpensive treatments with generally mild benefits. Be sure to apply the right treatment to the right injury. If neither does the trick, it may be smart to see a medical professional.