Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 10.24.18 AMAching joints, tight muscles, strains, sprains, and headaches: we are all familiar with these. When they hit, should we reach for the ice pack or the heating pad? Both heat and cold are excellent therapies for pain. However did you know that depending on the injury, it is better to use one over the other, and in some cases, both? We hope this blog will help you understand more about how to use heat and cold therapy to treat pain.


When using heat to ease pain, there are two basic options: dry and moist. Electric heating pads are dry heat. Steaming towels, warm baths, and moist heat packs are moist heat. Heat soothes and loosens tight muscles, increases blood flow, and calms spasms.

Here’s how best to use heat:

• Chronic Pain
For sore muscles that are not the results of new, inflamed injuries, use moist or dry heat to relax and sooth.
• Joint Pain
For joint pain, such as arthritis, use moist heat to loosen joints and relieve stiffness.
• Headaches Caused by Tension
Tight muscles in the neck and shoulders can cause headaches. Use steamed towels, moist heat packs, or heating pads to loosen the muscles, get blood flowing, and ease head pain.
• Pulled muscles
After using cold therapy (see below), to decrease any inflammation, use heat to for lingering pain and soreness.

When using heat therapy, you may apply directly it to the skin, taking caution not to burn yourself with temperatures that are too intense. If your skin begins to redden noticeably, remove the heat to give it a rest. When it comes back to normal, use less heat or place a towel as a barrier between the heat and your skin.


Cold therapy includes the use of ice packs, gel packs, and even bags of frozen vegetables (small vegetables such as peas or pearl onions work best). Ice constricts blood vessels, numbs pain, reduces inflammation, and reduces the severity of bruising.

Here’s how to use cold therapy:

• New Injuries That Are Inflamed
Strains, sprains, and pulled muscles result in swelling and inflammation. Use ice immediately to take down swelling and numb pain.
• Inflammatory Arthritis
For painful arthritic flare-ups, use ice packs to reduce inflammation of the joints and numb the pain.
• Throbbing Headaches
For throbbing headaches not caused by tension, apply ice packs to the temples. This constricts blood vessels and relieves inflammation and pressure in your head.
• Acute Injuries to Tendons Connected to Shoulders, Knees, Elbows, and Wrists
Again, for new injuries, ice is best to limit the severity of the injury. Using ice at the onset of the injury can potentially slow damage. Use heat later on (see above) for remaining soreness and stiffness.

Unlike heat, do not apply ice directly to the skin. This may result in damage to the skin and nerves.

Every individual and every injury is unique. Heat and especially cold therapies may not be right for people with certain health conditions. Seek advice from your healthcare provider to be sure what is right for you. If something doesn’t feel or look right, stop use and consult your doctor. When using either heat or ice, or both, take great care not to injure the skin. Use in increments of 15 to 20 minutes. Allow your skin to come to normal temperature and color before reapplying.

Aches and pains are a normal, yet unfortunate, part of life. Heat and cold therapies are easy, inexpensive ways to ease the suffering and speed up the healing process. Use the above tips to recognize when and how to use heat and cold therapies. With caution, grab a pad or a pack, and be on your way to feeling and moving better.

For more information on these and other therapies for pain, please schedule an appointment today!