Heat Therapy vs. Cold Therapy: How and When to Use At-Home Pain Treatments

Heat Therapy vs. Cold Therapy

There are a wide variety of ailments that can be treated using heat or ice. Using either (or both) of these methods is an effective and inexpensive solution to different types of physical pain. Knowing when to use cold therapy over heat therapy is invaluable when treating your injury at home, however. If you’re not sure what type of treatment to use and when, take a look at our guide and make the most of these at-home methods of pain management.

When to Use Heat

Heat therapy works well for alleviating muscle soreness and joint stiffness by raising the temperature around the area of discomfort and increasing the flow of blood to the area, which improves your circulation. This leads to better muscle flexibility and can even help heal muscle tissue that has been damaged. Both wet and dry heat treatments are effective, but it’s recommended that you try wet heat (baths, steamed towels) for soothing large areas and dry heat (heating pads, hot water bottles) for smaller, more localized aches.

Use caution with heat therapy and never apply heat to active swelling, open wounds, or bruises, as the heat can actually exacerbate your pain in those instances. Avoid extreme heat and opt for warm instead, so as not to burn your skin or further injure yourself. 

When to Use Ice

Cold therapy works best for reducing swelling and inflammation. Unlike heat therapy, using cold therapy reduces the circulation and blood flow to the affected area, and can even help dull nerve pain for a short while. Joint pain, unlike joint stiffness, benefits from colder temperatures by decreasing the swelling near the affected site. Injuries like sprains and contusions are best treated with ice packs, cold towels, or cooling topical applications. 

Don’t overdo cold therapy treatments, however, as too much direct contact can cause tissue and nerve damage. Further reducing the flow of blood to the affected area by keeping it elevated (if possible) will make this type of treatment more effective.

For some, alternating hot and cold treatments is the best method of treating aches and pains at home. Be sure to monitor your pain and injury carefully, and seek medical assistance if you notice unusual changes in your skin, undue bruising, or a lack of improvement in your symptoms for an extended amount of time.