Using Cold or Heat for Pain Relief


Cold Therapy:

Do I use heat or ice for my injury? Many wonder the correct treatment for pain relief post injury.

Cold therapy is most effective when used during the acute phase of pain. Commonly, used when swelling and inflammation is observed over affected area. The cold treatment constricts blood vessels which reduce swelling and blood flow to area. The standard protocol for cold therapy involves 20 minutes of application every 2 hours over a period of 72 hours after initial onset of injury.

Cold therapy options:

  • Bag of ice or frozen vegetables
  • Cold pack
  • Ice bath

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy is applied to loosen stiff joints and tissue. The heat treatment dilates the vessels to increases the circulation, therefore, increasing the nutrients to the affected joints and muscles. Heat therapy is often used before exercise or upon wakening in the morning to relieve tight muscles and increase joint flexibility.

Even though there is no protocol for heat therapy, try to use warm heat, not hot, and no longer than 15 minutes. Heat application depends on the thickness of the affected tissue. If the application is for a short time period, the heat might not penetrate down to the affected muscles and joint tissues. For minor or moderate painful joints in the ankle or elbow may only need heat application for 15-20 minutes to be effective. While deeper affected joints with severe pain, such as arthritis in lower back or hip, might need heat therapy for 30 minutes or longer to be effective.

Heat therapy options:

  • Electric heating pad
  • Warm bath or shower
  • Moist heat pad/Hot water bottle
  • Heated rice pillow
  • Warm paraffin wax treatment
  • Soak in warm whirlpool
  • Dry Sauna
  • Apply mineral oil

Often, alternating heat and ice is the most effective for pain relief. For example, heat is used to relax the muscles around the arthritic knee especially before exercise or upon awakening in the morning. After a long active day, exercise, or repetitive activity your knees may become painful or swollen. At this time, using cold therapy reduces the pain and swelling around the arthritic knee. The alternation of heat and ice can be repeated throughout the day.

Every therapy reacts differently to each individual, test and see what provides you pain relief, heat or cold therapy.