Heat vs. Ice

311185314_c9ecadec09_b_ghedo_sharealike_don't let them aloneHeat vs. Ice

An answer to the question: When should I use heat vs. ice for pain?

Team Moji
Chicago, IL


  • Heat and ice therapy both aid the body’s natural healing mechanisms
  • Both treatments are two of the most effective and natural ways to manage pain and promote healing


  • Ice therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is Greek for ‘cold-cure’
  • Heat therapy, known as thermotherapy, means ‘heat-cure’ in Greek
  • Ice and heat therapy are two of the oldest healing methods


One the most common questions people have about pain and injury management is when to use ice and when to use heat.  Heat and ice therapy are standard practice for athletes, and they have been for ages.  They are both used to alter the temperature of the tissues directly beneath our skin to lessen pain, quicken healing time, and recover from workouts.  But what is the real difference between ice therapy and heat therapy and their ability to manage our pain and improve our condition?


When you get injured or receive a trauma, blood rushes to the site of the injury in an effort to deliver much-needed nutrients and oxygen.  In that rush of energy, blood vessels expand, increasing blood flow and causing the injury site to swell up and inflame.

Essentially, when an ice pack is placed on an injury, a few things happen: cell metabolism decreases (slows down) and vasoconstriction occurs.  Vasoconstriction is a fancy word for what happens when your blood vessels constrict and get smaller.  When your blood vessels get smaller, swelling decreases.  When swelling decreases, so does that pain that you feel as pressure on the injury site.  The ice will also help numb the tissues and nerves that send pain signals to your brain.


  • Draws heat away from the injury site by constricting blood vessels
  • Reduces swelling and inflammation
  • Reduces pain
  • Most effective immediately after receiving injury or onset of pain
  • Often used in conjunction with rest, compression, and elevation (known as R.I.C.E. treatment) immediately after workouts or injuries


  • After workouts to reduce inflammation or ease muscle aches
  • For the first 2-3 days after you receive an acute injury (such as a sprained ankle or pulled muscle)
  • After activities that re-ignite a chronic injury
  • Tendinitis when there is swelling
  • Arthritis pain
  • Knotted muscles


Heating increases the temperature of the tissues and blood vessels beneath the surface of the skin.  Blood vessels open up and increase in size, promoting improved blood flow and circulation and delivering more nutrients and oxygen to the damaged area.  When tissues and muscles are heated up, they loosen and become more elastic (the collagen in the tissues will get more and more flexible as it is heated).  This is why heat therapy can be especially helpful in dealing with cramps or muscle spasms.


  • Improves circulation
  • Reduces pain
  • Eases cramping and relaxes tight muscles and tissues
  • Increases flexibility and range of motion
  • Often used in rehab to deliver nutrients and oxygen to damaged areas



  • To ease regular pain from chronic conditions
  • Before workouts to improve muscle and ligament elasticity
  • During muscle spasms or cramping
  • Knotted muscles
  • Arthritis pain
  • Stiffness and sore or tense muscles


Our bodies have a tremendous capacity to heal themselves and recover from stress.  But they need a little help every now and then.  Ice and heat therapy both provide an opportunity for our bodies to spend more time healing (it’s hard for a sprained ankle to mend itself when it’s the size of a bowling ball) and less time in pain. Used at the right times, heat/ice therapy can be instrumental in not only healing your injuries, but also in keeping you off the injury list in the first place.

Jill Lohmann is a Director of Operations for Accelerated Rehabilitation Centers and a certified physical therapist. Accelerated Rehabilitation Centers is a physical therapist owned and operated rehabilitation company with a network of 170 outpatient rehabilitation centers located throughout the Midwest, Arizona and Georgia.


Leave a reply