MBQT: The Ice vs Heat Debate

HARDDRIVE (1) ice vs heat


It’s hard to get through life without straining, tearing, twisting or pulling something.  And when that pain hits, most of us quickly jump toward ice or heat to solve our problems.

But the choice between ice or heat can be a tricky one.   Because if you choose wrong, you could actually be making the pain and problem worse. 

We want to simplify it for you, to give you a quick rule of thumb on the great ice vs. heat debate. 

Here’s what it mostly boils down to:


Woman icing knee painICE: Ice will be your best friend when you have a new or acute injury – like an ankle or knee sprain. When those things happen, you damage to your tissues and blood vessels, which ultimately leads to swelling and inflammation around the injured area.  Ice helps alleviate pain by constricting the blood vessels back to their normal size.  And although ice seems cold, hard and uncomfortable, it can be your saving grace for anything red and inflamed – the faster you apply ice, the better.  But only ice for 10-20 minutes at a time so you don’t irritate your skin.  After that ice session, give your skin a break and then rinse and repeat as needed for the next day or two.

Woman with heating pad on her backHEAT: If you have sore, tight or hurting muscles, then heat should probably be your first pick.  Applying heat stimulates your circulation and increases your tissue elasticity.  But heat can be great for more than just sore muscles. Heat is also good for chronic pain and stress. Heat takes the edge of any muscle spasms or trigger points by soothing the nervous system, relaxing your tissues and even calming the mind. Just make sure you don’t burn your skin with too hot of temperature.

Now, this seems simple, but often times it’s hard to know what the exact cause of your pain is.

So what happens if you guess wrong? If you pick ice when you should’ve picked heat?

If you ice tight or sore muscles, like on your neck, back or hamstrings, you can make the pain worse. Cold can aggravate muscle pain and stiffness because it tightens up the tissues more than before.  Think about freezing a rubber band and then trying to stretch it – it’s going to snap. Ice can do the same thing (although not as drastic) to your sore and tight muscles. 

And on that same token, if you put heat on a swollen and inflamed joint, you’re just asking for it to get more swollen and inflamed.  That heat will allow your blood vessels to continue expanding, and bam, more pain to that inflamed area.

Now things do get a little tricky when you’ve got an injured muscle – because that should mean ice and heat, right?

So which one do you choose?

In most cases, ice wins – first. If you have a real muscle injury, a tear or a sprain, then ice can help ease the swelling. After a few days (at most), the swelling should go down and you can use heat to treat the damage and pain that persists in the muscle.

But if you really have no idea whether you’ve got sore, tight muscles or swelling and inflammation – make your best guess about what would feel best at that time.

If you’ve just been training and are already sweaty and hot, then putting heat on your muscles isn’t going to feel too relaxing, because they’re already warm.

If you’re freezing and shivering, maybe you worked out in the snow, then icing probably doesn’t sound too soothing either.

So choose the method that feels best in that moment.

If the pain starts decreasing, then you’re on to something.

But if that pain gets worse, you’re body is telling you that you picked the wrong choice.   If that happens, stop, give your body a few minutes to adjust back to room temperature, and then go for the other option.

But always listen to your body – if you use the ice or heat method and you’re still not feeling relief, you may need a more expert opinion. 



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