Using Ice vs. Heat for Pain Management

It’s hard to get through life without straining a muscle, spraining a ligament, suffering a headache or wrenching your back. And the longer you’re on the planet, the more susceptible you are to arthritis. When something hurts, will ice or heat make it feel better? Here’s what our experts advise:

  • Sports injuries: “Ice seems cold, mean and uncomfortable. Heat seems warm, comfy and cozy,” says sports and exercise medicine physician Anne Rex, DO. “But ice wins for acute pain, inflammation and swelling. Heat perpetuates the cycle of inflammation and can be harmful.”Adds Sports Health physical therapist Carol Ferkovic Mack, DPT, SCS, CSCS: “Moist heat helps to loosen injured muscles before activity or stretching. Icing afterward can minimize pain. Click here for "Treating Acute Sports and Exercise Injuries in the First 24 to 72 Hours".
  • Headaches: “Cold masks or wraps over the forehead, eyes and temples help the throbbing pain of a migraine,” says neurologist Jennifer Kriegler, MD. Ice is preferred, but heat wraps can halt neck spasms that contribute to headache.
  • Arthritis: Heat wins for arthritis and injuries that linger more than six weeks. “Patients with more chronic osteoarthritis usually feel better with heat,” says rheumatologist Linda Mileti, MD. But for acute gout flares, she favors ice.

Click here for the "The P.R.I.C.E. Protocol Principles".

In this infographic below, the experts explain when to use ice, when to use heat and why:

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