Heating Pad vs. Ice Pack: When to Use Heat or Cold Therapy

Medically Reviewed by Kelsey Powell, MS, Medical Sciences

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When you have aches and pains, you might reach for an ice pack or heating pad. But which is better? That depends on the type of injury or health problem you’re dealing with. Whether you’re stiff, sore or nursing an injury, read on to find the best method to soothe your aches and pains.

When and How to Use Cold Therapy

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Cold therapy is better for treating acute (sudden and short-term) problems — like short-term inflammation and minor injuries like sprains or strains. Applying cold to an injury reduces swelling and inflammation by decreasing the blood flow and lowering the temperature of the injured tissue. Cold therapy also quickly relieves pain and tenderness by numbing nerves in the injured area.

You can do cold therapy at home using one of these methods:

  • Ice pack or cold compress
  • Bag of frozen vegetables
  • Frozen towel or washcloth
  • Ice bath

Apply cold therapy to the injured area for no more than for 20 minutes at a time. To prevent irritation, always place a towel or cloth between the ice pack and your skin.

When and How to Use Heat Therapy

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Heat therapy is better for treating chronic (long-term) injuries and health conditions that last longer than 6 weeks and don’t involve swelling or acute inflammation. For example, heat therapy can help with chronic joint pain from arthritis or tendonitis. Heat increases blood flow to help repair damaged tissue and remove toxins from the injured area. Heat therapy can also relieve pain, relax muscles and help loosen up stiff or sore muscles and joints.

You can do heat therapy at home using one of these methods:

  • Heating pad
  • Heat pack or warm compress
  • Warm towel
  • Hot bath or soak

Never apply heat in the first 48 hours after an injury — this can make swelling and bruising worse.

Combining Heat and Cold Therapies

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Using the right therapy can help you heal faster. If you’ve got a short-term or minor injury like a sprained ankle or a pulled muscle, cold is probably the way to go. And if you’ve got chronic pain or soreness, heat therapy may be a better bet. 

Many injuries end up needing a combination of the two. For example, many acute injuries heal better when you use cold therapy for the initial swelling and bruising, and then change to heat. Just remember not to use heat within the first 48 hours after the injury.

And if you have pain or an injury that gets worse or doesn’t feel better after 48 hours, it’s important to see your doctor.

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