Ice vs. Heat: Which is best?

ice or heat? How do you know which one to use

Muscle pain, joint pain and injuries can really stop you in your tracks. When you are injured or in pain getting relief fast is extremely important and both ice and heat can play a role.

When used at the right time both heat and ice are excellent for pain relief. Generally ice is best for a new injury and heat is best for general pain or long term injury.  Unfortunately both can make your pain worse if used incorrectly.

That’s why It is so important to know which to use when and how best to apply them.

How does ice help?

Three ice cubes

When you apply ice to an area it:

  • reduces the blood flow to the area
  • reduces inflammation/ swelling
  • causes generalised numbness in the area

It is important to remember that swelling and inflammation are part of your body’s normal response to an injury and the increased blood flow to the area is part of the normal healing process. This is why reducing the blood flow can actually be harmful in some instances.

How does heat help?

When you apply heat to an area it causes

  • increased blood flow
  • relaxation of tight muscles
  • improved movement

Remember when you increase blood flow you can get more swelling in the region which can cause an increased pain level in the area later.


When to use ice

  • immediately after an injury to reduce pain and swelling
  • for chronic inflammatory conditions such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

When to use heat

  • long term injuries
  • for muscles, chronic injuries and stress/tension
  • any pain, ache or injury which involves a feeling of muscle tightness, stiffness or tension
  • to relieve some of the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis/degeneration.
  • Before exercise
  • For generalised aches and pains, tightness/tension due to stress or post-exercise stiffness use a full body heat therapy.

How to apply ice

Generally apply ice for about 5-10 minutes then remove for 15 – 20 minutes. Stop icing the area when the area is numb and reapply once the area has warmed up.   As a general rule when it’s numb you’re done.

  • Rubbing ice directly on the skin (ice massage) cools the area quickly and the cold water left behind helps to maintain the cooling effect. One method is to freeze water in a Styrofoam cup and once frozen peel off part of the cup to use on the skin with the rest of the cup as a grip. It is important to continuously move the ice when applied to the skin to avoid ice burns
  • In plastic bag or wet towel to ice a large or awkward area. It can mould to or spread out over an area to achieve the best possible results
  • Commercial Ice packs are effective and reusable however they don’t stay cold as long as ice.


How to apply heat


  • To heat one area use a hot water bottle, heat pad or heat pack – only heat until warm not hot and apply for 10 to 20 minutes as long as comfortable. Use for less time on smaller areas or longer for large areas
  • To heat your full body use warm showers, spas or saunas. The damp heat is helpful and will relax your whole body not just the specifically tight muscles. Use for as long as you feel comfortable but never too hot.



When not to use ice

  • Never use ice before or while playing sport or exercising or you have a high risk of injuring yourself further
  • Applying ice to a tight and painful muscle may aggravate the pain. You may feel a burning or aching pain while applying ice – this is a sign that ice isn’t appropriate to use for your pain

When not to use heat

  • Never use heat on an infected or newly injured area
  • If there are signs of new, active inflammation – skin sensitive to touch or red and hot or significant swelling
  • Directly after exercise


When using heat or ice the most important thing is to listen to your body. Whichever you use should relieve your pain not make you feel worse.

Remember if your aches and pains don’t settle quickly or keep recurring you need to see your health care provider to get to the cause of your problems.

Please leave us a comment below. We would love to hear from you and feel free to ask any questions you may have.

Copyright Ansell Chiropractic ©2016


  1. Krys

    Great advice thank you!

    • daryl

      Thanks Krys appreciate your comments 🙂

  2. viv moran

    Hi Daryl and the team,

    I always read these snippets of advice but found this info on the choice of heat and cold particularly useful – thanks!

    • Ansell Chiropractic

      Thanks for you comment Viv, we really appreciate it. Have a great Christmas 🙂

  3. Paul Finn

    Great explanation of when to use Ice versus Heat, thanks for the tips.

  4. Julie

    Makes the question of heat or cold much simpler!

    • daryl

      Thanks we use that a lot with patients to avoid confusion


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