Should I Use Heat or Ice?

By Amanda Garland, PT, ATC

Should I Use Ice or Heat?

A common question people ask is whether to use heat or ice following an injury. Most people want to hear that they can use heat, however, there are several factors that one must take into consideration.  It is important to understand the effects of ice and heat on the body to help you make the decision.  When ice is applied to an area, it will constrict blood vessels to reduce blood flow to the area and decrease swelling. In turn, by decreasing the swelling it will help decrease the pain and muscle spasms.

Image of hot pack on knee.

hot pack helps with pain

What does heat do?

When heat is applied to an area, it will produce opposite effects. Heat will increase blood flow to an area. If an injury is recent, within the last 48 hours, heat will actually increase the amount of swelling and delay healing.

Is heat or ice safer?

So when is it safe to use each? When in doubt, use ice. If the injury is new and you notice swelling and redness, use ice. You should ice for no longer than 15 minutes. It is normal to feel cold, burning, aching, and numbness when the ice pack is on. If it starts to get too painful, simply remove the cold pack. Everyone always wants to use heat. If the injury is older and there are no current signs of swelling or redness, you may use heat. Heat is generally indicated if you are trying to relax and loosen the tissues. You should heat for 15 minutes.

How do you make a cold pack at home?

Tip: How to make a homemade ice pack: 4 parts water to 1 part rubbing alcohol. Mix in a Ziploc bag and place in the freezer. Ice pack should not harden due the alcohol. For firmer ice pack decrease the amount of alcohol.

To learn more about other medical questions, please go to our library or trending section.

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