Is Ice or Heat Better for Injury?

Do you ever wonder, is ice or heat better for injury? Continue reading for a breakdown of the differences!

How and When to Apply Ice for Injury

In scientific terminology, ice is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it narrows blood vessels and pushes blood flow out of an area, subsequently reducing inflammation. An ice pack is typically best for recent injuries that may be red, swollen or hot to the touch. Pain that is localized and throbbing in nature will likely calm with ice when applied with a treatment of 10-20 minutes. Acute situations where cold therapy is best include a recent muscle spasm/strain after a surgery. Remember to break for 20 minutes before reapplying ice to avoid discomfort or frostbite.

How and When to Apply Heat for Injury

On the other hand, heat does the exact opposite. Heat is a vasodilator, meaning it expands blood vessels and brings blood flow to the area of injury. Heat is beneficial for more chronic injuries, those lasting over 2 weeks. Heat therapy is effective with deep aches and muscle tightness, like chronic low back pain and muscle soreness. Apply heat to the affected area in scheduled intervals up to 15 – 20 minutes. Heat can be applied safely in scheduled intervals up to 15 – 20 minutes. Remember to break for 20 minutes before reapplying heat to avoid discomfort or burns.

The Verdict

There really is no right or wrong answer as to which modality to use. The rule of thumb is to use ice for acute pain and inflammation while using heat for chronic aching and stiffness. We recommend listening to your body! If you’re still struggling with an injury, please don’t put of seeking help from a professional. Make an appointment to see a physical therapist to determine the best course of treatment. At Release Physical Therapy, our goal is to get you back to your activities safely and quickly.

Acute: within 2 weeks of injury Chronic: >2 weeks since injury
Redness & swelling Aching
Increased temperature to touch Tightness
Recent muscle spasm/strain Chronic muscle tear
Examples: ankle strain; muscle strain; post-op Examples: chronic low back pain; muscle soreness; muscle tightness