When To Use Heat vs Cold Therapy For Pain Relief

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Pain is a debilitating condition whether it’s chronic or occasional. It wears you down and tires you out and makes your quality of life deplete quickly. There are all sorts of pills and creams you can use, but what about exploring something as simple as heat or cold therapy? These kinds of therapy are used in a variety of different ways (compresses, baths, etc.) and can provide significant pain relief. However, it’s important to know the basics when it comes to heat and cold therapy, so you know which one to use for your situation. Keep reading for more information.

Cold Therapy


What is it?

As the name suggests, cold therapy (also known as ice therapy or cryotherapy) uses cold temperatures to help relieve pain. Cold temperatures reduce the blood flow to the injured or painful area, as well as numbs the nerve endings around that area. The effect is a significant reduction in inflammation, swelling and pain.


How can you apply cold therapy to yourself?

There are many ways to apply cold therapy but some of the commons ones are:

  • Cold compress – This can be as simple as a cold pack or a simple bag of ice applied on or around the painful area. Or you can upgrade to a cold therapy wrap with compression, which provides the benefits of ice therapy with compression therapy. The advantage of using a wrap is that you don’t have to hold it in place yourself. You just attach the wrap around the injured area and then go about your business.

  • Soaking – You can use the method of soaking the affected area in cold water (e.g.: ice baths), but the key is to make the water cold, and not close to freezing. Cold water therapy is great for relieving muscle soreness and helps to reduce swelling and pain after a grueling workout or other physical activity.
  • Cold massage – This is done by gently massaging the impacted area with an ice cube or frozen massage ball, in small circular motions. You can do this 2-5 times daily for about 5-10 minutes each. Ice burn is a real risk, which is why you need to make sure that you stick to shorter timings.


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When should you use it?

Generally, as rule of thumb, it is recommended to use ice when you are experiencing inflammation and swelling, or have an acute injury or pain. Some examples include (but are not limited) to the following:

  • Osteoarthritis flare-ups
  • A recent injury to any part of your body
  • Gout
  • Strains to muscles
  • Tendinitis
  • Migraines

With cold therapy, you often find that people will run into situations where they keep the packs on too long or they are using the therapy ineffectively, so it tends to get a bad reputation for this reason. When you use it correctly, it can be an effective solution for long term relief without resorting to medications or other drastic solutions. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Only use it for 10-15 minutes at a time, every 5-6 hours
  • When applying an ice pack to an injured area, always place some sort of fabric between the skin and the pack, to avoid frostbite
  • Do not apply if you have an open wound or cut
  • Avoid cold therapy if you have poor circulation, already feel numbness in the affected area, or have a sensitivity to cold
  • Always consult a doctor prior to starting a cold therapy treatment program

When To Use Heat vs Cold Therapy For Pain Relief

Heat Therapy


What is it?

Often preferred by most people due to its immediate comfort, heat therapy treatment involves applying heat to the impacted area and allowing the muscles to loosen up, which allows for blood to flow to the area and alleviate the pain.


How can you apply it to yourself?

Similar to cold therapy, there are a bunch of different ways you can incorporate heat therapy into your daily routine, however here are some of the common ones:

  • A heating pad or hot water bottle – This has been used for many years as a common alleviation for stomach pain or sore muscles after exercise.
  • Soaking – A warm (but not scalding hot) bath is often used to soak large areas of the body that need pain relief and is common for those with back pain.
  • Paraffin wax treatmentParaffin wax can be applied carefully to impacted areas for some great relief form pain
  • Medicated creams or patches – These are also popular, since they also offer quick ways to get some relief and are easy to apply. Simply apply the cream or patch to the affected area and wait for the relief to come.


When should you use it?

Heat therapy is typically recommended for muscle pain or stiffness. For example, it’s a great option when you want to relax and loosen your muscles (e.g.: before a strenuous workout) since it will stimulate blood flow around the area. Below are a few situations where heat therapy can come in handy for pain relief. (Note: Some situations do overlap with cold therapy, so it is advisable to consult your doctor for his/her recommendation.):

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Strains or sprains
  • Tendonitis
  • Warming up sore muscles or tissue before use
  • Back pain or spasms from neck to lower back
  • Tension headaches

Just like cold therapy, there are some general guidelines that you need to be aware of when using heat therapy:

  • Never leave it on for too long. 15-20 is usually good enough to tackle minor stiffness, however you may need longer (30-40) for more serious cases of stiffness.
  • Stop when you feel any form of discomfort
  • Never use directly on an open wound or cut
  • People with certain pre-existing conditions (diabetes, vascular diseases, multiple sclerosis, etc.) should avoid.
  • Always consult a doctor before starting this form of treatment in case you have other pre-existing conditions


Contrast Therapy?

Contrast therapy is when you incorporate a mix of hot and cold therapy to get some relief. As we mentioned above, regardless of the cause of your pain, some bodies just respond better to cold and some to heat and some people benefit from alternating between the two. Here’s an example of one form of contrast therapy that is gaining for speed in the athletic world right now:



Both cold and heat therapy have great benefits, whether you suffer from back pain or some other ailment. If you have any personal experience with these forms of treatment, we’d love to hear from you. What works, what doesn’t and why you tried it in the first place. Just use the comment box below. Until next time!
Disclaimer: We are not doctors here at SimplyJnJ. The information on when to use heat versus cold therapy explained above was done so for informational purposes only. You always need to make sure that you consult a doctor before beginning any form of treatment.


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