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Ice or Heat: Which is Best for Your Pain?

  • Targeted Pain Relief
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This summer, you'll probably want to head outside and get moving, but with that comes the possibility of sprains and strains. For some discomfort, heat or ice therapy could help soothe sore, achy muscles and joints. But which is better? Here's a rundown of when to use ice and when you should opt for warmth when treating your pain.

Ice can reduce inflammation after an injury.Ice can reduce inflammation after an injury.

When to Use Ice
Though it can be uncomfortable to apply ice to your pain, the cold will help numb the discomfort and reduce inflammation in the process. Choose ice over heat when there's inflammation, redness or swelling. For example, when you first roll your ankle, it could look puffy and inflamed. Applying ice can help with this and dull the pain. Also, a headache that produces throbbing pain could be eased with either ice or a cool pack draped over the eyes, temples or neck. 

When choosing ice therapy, be sure to use an ice pack that's meant for skin. This means ditching the pack of frozen peas and instead opting for an actual ice pack. At the very least, apply a cloth on top of the ice to provide your skin with a layer of protection so the ice is not directly touching your sensitive skin. The National Institutes of Health recommended applying ice therapy for 10 to 15 minutes each hour on the first day of pain. After that, reduce the frequency and just apply ice every 3 to 4 hours.

"Heat therapy can be beneficial for minor pain."

When to Use Heat
On the other hand, heat therapy can also be quite beneficial for minor pain. It's typically good to apply a heating pad after icing a certain area to relieve stiffness, especially with sprains. Heat is also helpful when you experience other aches and pains, like menstrual cramps and arthritis or tendinosis. Additionally, while certain throbbing headaches are best relieved with ice, other kinds of headaches that are produced by neck and back spasms are better soothed with heat therapy.

Using a heating pad, apply to the area of discomfort and leave it there for 15-20 minutes. It may be most comfortable to keep a layer of clothing in between the heat and your skin. To reduce your chance of injury from exercise in the future, be sure to properly stretch before and after physical activity, and always be conscious of your level of physical ability.