Several times a week someone asks me whether they should put heat or ice on their painful area. I always tell them it depends. It depends on what’s causing the pain. There’s a tendency for folks to want to default to either heat or cold for all of their pains, but it really depends on what’s going on. When in doubt use this handy cheat sheet.
When to Use (and not use) Heat
If it’s muscle, use heat… unless the area’s red, hot, or swollen
Use heat on muscle cramps
Use heat on muscle spasms
Heat will often relax tight neck muscles responsible for tension headaches
Sometimes you still need to use heat, even if it doesn’t help when applied to the painful area. In that case, it needs to be applied to a different muscle; usually one that does the opposite action of the painful one.
Caution: If you use heat and it feels worse during or after… switch to ice!
Never use heat on an area that has inflammation (even if it’s not red, hot, or visibly swollen)… it can make things worse
Never use heat for more than 20 minutes at a time unless directed by your doctor
When to Use (and not use) Ice
If it’s red, hot, swollen… use ice and avoid heat
Caution: if it’s red, hot, and swollen in streaks get to the ER
If you need ice, it will not feel too cold, even in the winter. If ice is painfully cold, you don’t need it
Use ice on a sprain or other injury only enough to make the pain tolerable. Ice slows down the healing process and should be used sparingly for injuries. FYI: the guy who came up with the acronym RICE for injuries now says that ice (the I in RICE) is not the best therapy for healing.
Ice will sometimes dull the pain of migraine headaches
Feel free to save this or print it out so you can use it the next time you wonder whether you need heat or ice.