Should I use a heat pack or ice pack for pain?

Published March 19, 2017

Heat packs and ice packs may both be used to relieve pain, but which is appropriate for your pain – hot or cold?

The common rule of thumb is to use cold for new injuries and swelling. But this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Follow what feels right for you.

Heat

Heat will increase blood flow to soothe sore muscles and relax muscle spasms. You can apply heat directly to the site of your pain through a heat pack or a hot water bottle, or you can raise your body temperature with a sauna or hot bath. Applying heat to your abdomen or lower back can help to alleviate pain associated with menstrual cramps. Be careful with this form of therapy because long use of heat can cause burns or skin breakdown.

Cold

Cool temperatures will assist with the swelling and inflammation that comes with a new injury, by doing the opposite of heat – it contracts blood vessels to slow down blood flow, reducing any fluid build-up. The cold also helps to numb pain caused by the swelling. You should only apply the cold directly, for example with an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables, and never for longer than 20 minutes.

Heat and cold packs are only short-term aids for your pain. You should try not to rely on them too much, and do not substitute them for proper evaluation and treatment from a healthcare professional.

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