Should I put heat or cold on my injury? This is one of the biggest questions we get asked when people come in for various injuries, aches, and pains. Our answer, most of the time, is that it depends!

Thermotherapy is the application of heat or cold to help manage symptoms (pain, swelling, etc.) It is considered a safe form of treatment with low risk of side effects. Heat causes a local increase in temperature which will increase circulation, muscle elasticity and metabolic activity. Ice, on the other hand, causes a decrease of these factors. Both heat and ice can help relieve muscle spasms for different reasons.

Heat, or hot compresses, can improve circulation and relax muscles, decrease stiffness, all of which help facilitate movement. Heat can also help muscles to let go of metabolic waste and reoxygenate the muscle. Heat can be used before our treatments to warm up the tissue so we can get further into your range of motion when working with stiff joints, as well as be used after treatments to help ease muscle tension. Heat can also be applied in more chronic conditions (present for several weeks or months). We tend to avoid applying heat to acute injuries where there may be more swelling in order to not encourage inflammation.

Ice or cold packs may help numb pain, decrease swelling, constrict blood vessels and block nerve impulses to the joint. It is suggested to use ice in the early stages of an injury to help numb the pain and help with inflammation to a certain extent. It can also be helpful after heavy workouts or after a big day of activities to calm down an irritation that may have been triggered. 

In conclusion, there is no miracle cure or wrong answer. The main goal for both is pain relief. We recommend that you try both heat and ice to determine which one is more effective for you! If it helps, it helps!

How to use heat or ice?

Apply for periods of 15 to 20 minutes. It can be reapplied every 2 hours as needed.

You can use a hot pack, magic bag or hot water bottle. You can even take a warm shower or bath or relax in a hot tub.
Apply for periods of 10 to 20 minutes. It can be reapplied every 2 hours if needed.

You can use an ice pack or a bag of frozen peas, etc. Wrap it in a wet towel to help the cold penetrate.

Ice baths can also be used (often for one part of the body at a time). Some athletes will use ice baths after training or competitions.

To prevent injury or aggravating any other health conditions, avoid ice or heat if you have:

  • Decreased, or altered sensation in the area you would like to use it on to avoid frostbite/burns;
  • An open or infected wounds;
  • An allergy or insensitivity to ice or heat;
  • Circulation/vascular problems such as Raynaud’s disease, hypersensitivity or deep vein thrombosis (DVT);
  • A sympathetic dysfunction causing an abnormal regulation of the blood vessels (abnormal reaction to hot and cold);
  • Fever (heat should be avoided).