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Ice vs. Heat: A User’s Guide to Hot and Cold Therapy

Ice vs. Heat: A User’s Guide to Hot and Cold Therapy

Did you know pain is the most common reason people seek medical treatment? That’s right. Out of all the reasons people go to the doctor, the number one is that they’re hurting. At some point in time, everyone experiences pain of one kind or another. Some experience acute pain — pain that comes on suddenly and typically doesn’t last long, like pain from an injury — and other people experience chronic pain, which is pain that continues for longer than three months.

Maybe you are even in pain right now.

If that’s the case, then you know that when you’re experiencing pain, all you can think about is finding a way to get rid of it. This is not only because it’s uncomfortable, but also because, over time, untreated pain can also lead to long-term disability, loss of work and an overall decrease in quality of life.

While some pain can be severe enough that it requires medical intervention, you can do several things at home to help with pain relief, like using ice or heat therapy. Everyone has heard of using ice and heat to treat pain. In fact, most people have used them at some point in their lifetime. And, if you have, you know that when you’re in pain, there’s no better feeling than laying on a heating pad when your lower back is throbbing or pressing an ice pack against the swelling on a twisted ankle.

Even though most people have used ice therapy or heat therapy at some point in their lives, you might not be sure about which is better. Does it matter whether you ice or heat your back? Can you apply heat to an injury and get results? The answers to those questions are that yes, it matters, and no, you shouldn’t be using heat on just any old injury.

Ice therapy and heat therapy serve two very distinct purposes. Ice therapy is best for treating acute injuries or pain, as well as swelling. In other words, ice therapy is excellent when you’ve hurt yourself or done something particular to cause pain, swelling or bruising that will resolve itself in a relatively short period. On the other hand, heat therapy is used to treat muscle pain and stiffness, which are the two primary causes of chronic pain. So, while you may encounter exceptions, heat therapy tends to be used more frequently to treat chronic pain, while you’re more likely to rely on the relief ice therapy brings when you’re dealing with an injury of some kind.

What Is Heat Therapy?

The best way to remember what heat therapy does is to recognize its purpose is to “soothe” the pain in a particular area or region of the body. Heat therapy works by increasing the temperature around an area of your body that is hurting — such as a muscle. When your body’s temperature rises, it improves blood flow and circulation, so when you increase the temperature in a specific area of the body, it’s going to increase the circulation in that particular area. When you have pain coming from one specific muscle — or set of muscles — increasing circulation helps to relax the muscle, ultimately easing pain and discomfort. Since it improves blood flow and circulation, it can be an effective way to heal damaged tissues, as well.

At this point, it’s important to mention one major thing: when we say “heat therapy,” we’re not talking about putting anything really hot against your skin. We’re talking a steady, warm heat. Anything that is going to burn you or cause even greater pain or discomfort is just too hot and should never be used for heat therapy.

Heat therapy can either be administered through “dry” heat or “moist” heat, but one isn’t necessarily better than the other. It comes down to your preference — try both to see which one brings you the most relief. Dry heat is the kind of heat you’ll get from heating pads, hot water bottles, heat patches and wraps or saunas. On the other hand, moist heat is the kind of heat you’d obtain through a hot bath or a steam towel.

How to Apply Heat

We’ve already talked about the different kinds of heat, but when you’re using it to manage your pain, it’s important to be strategic about where and how you’re applying it. For example, if you’re using heat to treat pain associated with a stiff muscle, you’ll apply “local” heat. Use a heat patch or small heating pad to target one specific area of your body for intensive treatment. The one you choose is to use is up to you, but we will say heat patches are a great option to apply low heat to a targeted area over an extended period. They move with you because they adhere to your back, neck, hip or whichever area of pain you’re trying to target. Depending on which kind you choose, it can provide up to eight hours of relief.

If your stiffness or pain is a bit more widespread, you can apply “regional” heat. You would typically do this with a steam towel or large heating pad of some kind. All it means is that you use a larger heat source to cover a bigger area of the body. If your pain is even more widespread, you can apply “full body” heat. The best way to do this is with a sauna treatment or a hot bath.

Regardless of whether you’re targeting one small spot or your entire body aches, heat therapy is more effective when applied over long periods of time. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re trying to treat relatively minor tension or stiffness, 15 to 20 minutes of heat at a time should provide welcome relief. If you’re addressing more severe pain or stiffness, you might benefit from anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours of heat, such as what you’d get from a long, hot bath.

If you can’t sit down in a warm bath, you can substitute it with a warm shower and still get some of the benefits of heat therapy — even a warm shower can provide benefits. In fact, some recommend taking a warm shower before exercising to help loosen muscles and joints.

Can I Use Heat Therapy?

Heat therapy can be very beneficial, especially in cases where people are suffering from chronic pain. It is relatively easy and inexpensive to use and typically provides quick, noticeable results. However, it is important to note that heat therapy can be dangerous if you have a preexisting health condition, such as dermatitis, diabetes, vascular disease, multiple sclerosis or deep vein thrombosis. Individuals with heart disease or hypertension also should avoid it. If you are pregnant, you’ll want to talk with your doctor before using a sauna or hot tub for heat therapy.

While we briefly mentioned it before, it’s also important to note you should avoid using heat therapy if your pain is coming from an open wound or an area of your body that’s swollen or bruised. It’s just not the right treatment for these issues and could potentially cause problems because there are certain conditions — such as swelling — where it may not be good to increase circulation to the affected area.

What Is Ice Therapy?

On the opposite side of the spectrum is ice therapy, which works by slowing the blood flow to an affected area of the body. By doing this, it can numb the pain that comes with swelling and inflammation, as well as provide significant relief from nerve pain.

Typically, people who are using ice therapy to manage their pain will apply it with an ice pack of some kind, or they may use an ice bath. You can also use ice massages and coolant sprays. While you can buy premade ice packs to keep on hand in case of injury, they are simple to make in a pinch. If you don’t have an ice pack handy, the easiest way to apply cold therapy is to grab a bag of frozen vegetables from the freezer or fill a plastic bag with ice cubes. Voila!

How to Apply Ice

Most of the time, the easiest way to apply ice to an affected area is to wrap an ice pack in a towel and hold it on the place where you’re experiencing pain. Unlike heat therapy, you won’t want to leave ice on your skin over any prolonged period. It can really hurt your skin if you do that — which isn’t going to help ease your pain and discomfort! The general rule of thumb is that you should only apply ice for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. To get the maximum impact from it, you can repeat the application anywhere from eight to 10 times in a day.

If you’re suffering from lower back pain, one effective way to get some relief from your pain is to give yourself an “ice massage.” To do this, you’ll need water, a paper cup and a freezer. Then, follow these simple steps:

1. Fill the cup with water, then freeze until solid.

2. Peel away the top of the cup — about an inch — so that the ice is sticking out above what’s left of the cup.

3. Lay down on your side. Put a pillow under your head and neck to keep yourself comfortable.

4. Gently massage the painful area with the cup. Move the ice in a circular motion, making sure to focus on one small part of the painful area at a time — around six inches — and being careful not to massage directly on your spinal column.

5. Repeat this motion for five minutes, then stop.

Can I Use Ice Therapy?

Ice therapy doesn’t have many of the limitations of heat therapy. For example, it’s not typically as dangerous to people with other health issues. However, it can be a problem for people who have sensory issues that make it difficult to sense pain. This includes people who have diabetes, as nerve damage may have impacted their sensitivity to extreme temperatures. It’s important to be able to see and feel what the ice is doing, so you don’t accidentally let it sit on your skin too long to cause damage and, ultimately, more pain. It’s also not recommended for people who have poor circulation.

As we mentioned previously, it’s important to understand the source of your pain and which treatment is going to be the most effective. Ice therapy is not useful for individuals who are trying to treat stiff joints or muscles because it will not loosen up stiff areas — it will have the opposite effect!

Managing Your Pain

When you’re in pain, you want a quick solution. Your goal is to reduce your pain and reclaim your life. Armed with an understanding about how ice and heat therapies work, you can do just that. Both are effective, inexpensive options for managing pain. It seems simple to tell someone to use a heating pad or apply an ice pack, but these methods work — they are tried and true. And, they are a great option either on their own or in conjunction with other pain management strategies as recommended by your doctor.

But, sometimes these treatments just aren’t enough. When chronic pain results from a medical condition, it may require some attention. If you’re experiencing chronic back or neck pain that isn’t responding to heat or ice, it might be time to talk with one of the specialists at the Spine Institute of North America (SINA).

With locations in East Windsor, East Brunswick and Marlton, SINA is committed to providing personalized care for each of our patients. When you see one of our highly experienced doctors, you will receive one-on-one care and attention dedicated to finding both short- and long-term solutions for the pain you’re dealing with. We don’t want to throw a textbook solution at you and send you on your way. We want to work with you to find the source of your pain and identify a solution that works for you.

While our goal is to provide treatment in the least invasive way possible, if you do end up needing to have surgery, our spine specialists offer minimally invasive procedures with the shortest recovery time possible. In fact, our patients typically average only two to three days of downtime before they can return to work. It sounds quick — which it is — but the long-lasting results speak for themselves.

If you’re experiencing neck and back pain, there’s no better time to find a solution. Contact us today to schedule your appointment.

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