Heat vs. ice: which one should I use?

Heat vs. Ice: Which One Do I Use?

We've all done it: accidentally hit your finger with a hammer, stepped off a curb and rolled your ankle, or pulled a muscle working out at the gym. Sometimes we just wake up with a stiff or sore neck, or achy muscles, without any idea of what happened to cause this. Following this incident, we rush to grab a bag of ice or a heating pad and press it against the painful area. But, was that what we were supposed to do? Which one is correct? How do we know when to use ice or heat? Today we're going to discuss how to know which to choose.

Understanding Inflammation

First, we need to understand the process of what happens in our body when we have pain or sustain an injury before we can decide whether to use ice or heat. This process is called inflammation and it's our bodies' way of signaling the healing process. Too much inflammation means our body is working overtime to try to heal, which make cause unpleasant symptoms.

The easiest example to understand is what happens to our body when we catch a cold or a flu. This is usually a virus entering our body and our immune system recognizes it as a foreign invader. We may get a fever and a cough. A fever and a cough is unpleasant to experience, but it's our bodies' way of killing the virus. The increased body temperature during a fever makes it harder for the virus to survive, and coughing is a way of expelling mucus to clear out the lungs. Even though it feels bad, these processes help you! This is an example of feeling the effects of a high amount of inflammation. Ice is best used in scenarios where we want to limit excessive inflammation.

On the other side of the spectrum is a lack of inflammation. This occurs in tissues that may have poor blood supply or people who have poor nutrition. Our bodies' ability to heal is limited in these circumstances. Our healing ability also decreases as we age. Taking anti-inflammatory medication such as Aspirin and Tylenol may help reduce the unpleasant symptoms we experience from too much inflammation, but also may prolong the healing process. In situations where we have chronic, prolonged symptoms, heat may be a suitable application.

Let's break it down into a simple list.


  • Acute injuries (injuries that have recently occurred suddenly and without warning)
  • Typically muscle strains or sprains
  • Best used within the first 48 hours of injury
  • Used in combination with rest and elevation
  • Apply to the affected area for approximately 20 minutes, can be repeated again an hour later


  • Chronic conditions (have been ongoing for a long time)
  • Conditions such as arthritis or muscle soreness (such as after a workout, not tears or strains!)
  • Using heat from a heating pad should last 10-20 minutes
  • Area should get warm, but not overheat

Hopefully this guide will help you recognize when it is appropriate to use ice or heat. As an aside, don't apply ice directly to your skin, be sure to wrap in a thin cloth or towel so that you don't freezer burn your skin. Additionally you can do the same with a heating pad, since you can heat burn your skin! If you have concerns about which to use, consult a professional before application.