Injuries & Pain: When to Use Ice or Heat

Man holding ice pack on arm.jpg

Whether you’ve been sitting or standing all day, the chances are you have experienced some joint or muscle pain. Working long days on your feet as a nurse, in a factory, or taking care of livestock can cause pain in your back, knees, and other major joints. Sitting at a desk all day can create neck pain, shoulder tension, headaches, and more. Before you reach for the pill bottle, there are other ways to help ease the pain! Using ice and heat are great alternatives to buying pain killers, and you can do it at home!  Applying ice or heat to injuries and tense muscles can help reduce pain and start the healing process, but which do you use?

Ice Therapy

Ice is used for acute pain, inflammation (swelling), and new injuries. When you hurt yourself, the damage immediately becomes inflamed, which looks like swelling, pain, and redness. Using the ice helps to narrow blood vessels and keeps swelling down. People who often exercise should use ice after working out, not heat. Ice will help reduce any swelling from a grueling workout routine. Heat, on the other hand, can increase swelling and prevent muscles from healing. If you do decide to ice a join, injury, or muscle, do so for 20 minutes at a time. Make sure to give yourself an hour break in between each session and do not place ice directly onto the skin.

Homemade Ice Packs

  • Ice cubes in a sealed baggie
  • A wet towel placed in the freezer for 15 minutes
  • A bag of frozen vegetables
  • DIY ice packs with dish soap and rubbing alcohol

Heat Therapy

Heat can be used for chronic pain or injuries that are no longer swollen. If you use heat on a swollen area, it can increase inflammation. This will prevent your injury from healing. Moist heat, like hot showers, saunas, steam baths, hot baths, or just warm damp towels, can help loosen tight muscles. Heat can also help increase flexibility and stiffness before a workout, but never use heat after a workout. Remember not to place a heat source directly onto the skin and to stay hydrated if you are using a moist heat source. Use the heat on a joint or muscle for 15 minutes, and then take an hour break.

Homemade Heating Pads

  • A towel in the dryer for a few minutes
  • A washcloth soaked in hot water
  • No-Sew Microwavable Rice Heating PadDIY Heating Pad

When to Use Ice or Heat

Discover which type of therapy could work for your aches and pains! If you don’t have any success with heat or ice, consider scheduling an appointment with the Orthopedic Services team at UnityPoint Clinic - Orthopedics in Fort Dodge. 

Upper Back Pain: Use Ice or Heat

  • Upper back pain is often caused by sitting in one place for too long, poor posture, bending, twisting, sneezing or coughing too hard, or carrying a backpack that is too heavy.
  • The solution to upper back pain is to ice the area for at least 72 hours. After that time, you can begin to use heat on the area to reduce tightness and increase flexibility.

Lower Back Pain: Use Ice or Heat

  • Pain in your lower back can be caused by strains or over-exertion. These injuries create tight muscles, which prevent enough blood from getting to the injured area.
  • It is recommended that patients ice this area first for 72 hours, and then apply heat.
  • Heat helps to manage pain and relax tight muscles.
  • Relaxed muscles allow your blood vessels to open, which brings more healing blood to the injuries.
  • Heat will also increase flexibility in your back and make you feel more comfortable.

Headaches: Use Ice or Heat

  • For throbbing headaches and migraines, a cold wrap covering your eyes, forehead and temples can reduce the pressure and pain.
  • Tension headaches caused by neck spasms can be reduced with heat.

Arthritis: Use Heat 

  • Chronic, or long-term, pain can be managed with heat. Heat helps to loosen joints and increase flexibility.

Neck Pain: Use Ice or Heat

  • Neck pain can come from a variety of sources, both big and small. Anything from poor posture to car accidents, muscle tension to sleeping funny, and twisting and turning quickly can cause neck pain.
  • If you have injured your neck and are experiencing swelling, you should ice the area for at least 72 hours. After icing, you can use heat to help any lingering pain.
  • Tight neck muscles and old injuries can benefit from heat only, as long as there isn’t any swelling.

Chronic Injuries: Use Heat 

  • Long-term injuries work similarly to arthritis. If there is no swelling around the injury, heat will help open blood vessels and repair the damaged area.

Shoulder Pain: Use Ice or Heat

  • Shoulder pain is often related closely to neck pain. Other than tension, it can also be caused by injuries to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the shoulders.
  • Injured shoulders should be iced for at least 72 hours, or until the swelling has reduced.
  • Tense or tight shoulders can get relief from heat, but be careful not to use heat on any swollen injuries.

Knee Pain: Use Ice or Heat 

  • Knee pain is one of the most common issues that doctors attend to. It can be caused by a sprain, cartilage tears, tendonitis, runner’s knee, or many other issues.
  • If there is swelling in your knee, you should ice for at least 72 hours until the swelling goes down. After that, heat can be used to help regain mobility.
  • If you are suffering from joint tightness and stiffness, heat can help relax these away. Make sure that there is no swelling before you begin to use heat on your knee.

If your pain persists or changes, it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor