Ice Pack Versus Heat Pack: Pain Relief Options

By Matthew Cenzon. May 7th 2016

When an injury or pain is bothering you, you might get conflicting messages from friends and family about which method of at-home treatment is the best. While some say ice is better for your pain, others claim that heat will do the trick. But how can you tell which is more appropriate for the type of injury you've sustained or pain you're feeling? And what is the best way to apply heat or cold? In this article, we'll explore the differences between hot and cold treatments and the best ways to apply those treatments at home.

Benefits Of Ice Packs

Applying a cold pack to an area where you're experiencing pain can have several benefits. First and foremost, cold is the best treatment for helping to relieve pain. That's because the icy temperatures help to numb the area so that you feel less pain. In addition to providing pain relief, this application of cold pressure also constricts the blood vessels in a particular area. This effectively reduces blood flow to the site of the injury or pain, which will bring swelling down considerably. Meanwhile, those cold temperatures slow down the cellular functions in the affected area, which may help prevent further tissue damage and limit bleeding.

Benefits Of Heat Packs

Heat packs have some of the same effects as ice packs when it comes to treating painful injuries. For example, applying heat to the affected area often reduces inflammation. Additionally, heating the area may provide some pain relief as it decreases the transmission of pain signals to the brain. However, other benefits of using heat packs differ from those of ice packs as well. Instead of limiting the blood coming to the area, heat actually increases the blood flow to that spot. This helps to reduce the stiffness in joints and relieve muscle spasms. Heat packs are also helpful for increasing flexibility and facilitating proper stretching.

How To Decide Whether To Use Cold Or Heat

Although there are some exceptions, it's best to use cold packs for acute injuries like a sprained ankle or a pulled muscle. Cold treatments are great for relieving pain fast, which is important with this type of sudden injury. Additionally, it's very effective for relieving swelling and preventing tissue damage. Cold packs act fast and are a good go-to treatment for these types of injuries.

Heat packs are more useful when it comes to muscle pain or chronic conditions like arthritis. The relief provided by a heat treatment is very soothing and helps to gradually reduce pain and stiffness in a particular area. In general, heat packs are better suited for treating these types of ongoing muscle or joint problems.

In some cases, a combination of heat and cold can be used to treat and injury. This is most common with acute injuries like a sprained ankle. Once the cold treatments are able to stop the swelling and bruising in the area (which is likely after a few days), heat may be applied to restore the flexibility and range of motion in the affected area.

Options For Cold Treatments

There are a few easy ways to perform at-home cold treatments. Here are a few options for cold packs:

  • Keep a store-bought cold pack on hand. These are either left in the freezer or have an activating agent that will freeze the pack once the particles inside are crushed.
  • Create a home-made ice pack. Put some ice in a plastic bag along with a small amount of cold water and seal it. Make sure you get all of the air out of the bag.
  • Use a bag of frozen vegetables. Try to shape the bag around the site of the injury so that it touches all of the affected area.

When using any of these treatments, be sure to remove the ice pack after about 10-to-15 minutes to let your skin warm up again. Leaving an ice pack on for too long could potentially cause nerve or tissue damage. Also, you should always keep a damp cloth between an ice pack and your skin to keep the area from getting too cold.

Options For Heat Treatments

Heat treatments are a little more difficult to create at home, but the desired results can still be achieved. Here are some options for heat packs:

  • Purchase a heating pad. These are ideal since they warm up quickly and easily and can be adjusted by temperature.
  • Use a towel to create an at-home treatment. Get the towel wet with very warm water. Wring out the excess water and apply it to the site of the pain. You may need to rewet the towel often to keep it warm.

If you do use a heating pad, keep either a towel or your clothing between the pad and your skin to prevent burns. Also, it's important to see a doctor if using ice packs or heat packs alone is not helping to relieve your pain or heal your injury.


More in category

Related Content