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As a therapist who works daily with people in pain, I’m frequently asked “What’s better, ice or heat?”, and “Is ice or heat better for me?”.  Here are some general guidelines:

ICE

When to Use:

  • For moderate to severe pain
  • During a flare-up
  • After exercise to avoid muscle soreness

Benefits:

  • Helps reduce swelling and pain
  • Decreases muscle spasm
  • Decreases trigger point pain

How to Use:

  • Apply gel pack or ice wrapped in a towel for 15-20 minutes or until the site becomes numb (a frozen bag of peas works well too!)
  • Can apply ice several times per day as needed, but not more than once an hour
  • Direct ice massage is helpful for smaller areas, such as knee or elbow. To perform, freeze water in a paper or Styrofoam cup, tear off top half and massage directly over painful region for 3-5 minutes.

When Not to Use:

  • If you’re sensitive to cold
  • Over areas that lack sensation
  • If you have cardiac or circulatory conditions, check with your doctor first
  • If you have peripheral vascular disease or Raynaud’s Syndrome
  • Avoid falling asleep on a gel ice pack to prevent frost bite

HEAT

When to Use:

  • For mild to moderate pain
  • Prior to stretching if you feel stiff

Benefits:

  • Helps relax muscles
  • Increases blood flow

How to Use:

  • Apply a moist, hot towel to the muscles for 10-20 minutes. Repeat as needed.
  • Heat moist towel in microwave for 30 seconds and place in large zip lock bag to maintain heat longer.

When Not to Use:

  • If your pain is moderate to severe
  • If you’re swollen
  • If you’re sensitive to heat
  • If your skin stays red 20-30 minutes after use
  • Over open wounds or blisters
  • Over areas that lack sensation
  • If you have cardiac or circulatory conditions, check with your doctor first