Knowing When to Use Heat VS Ice on Injuries

Right Treatment can Speed Up the Healing Process

When patients have achy muscles and joints, they sometimes are confused about whether to treat the pain with heat or ice. While using the right treatment can help you feel better, choosing the wrong one can cause more harm than good, according to ThedaCare licensed athletic trainers.

“Athletes are unsure about what they should do after an injury and if heat or ice is better. If an injury just happened, I always remind them of RICE – rest, ice, compression and elevation – and encourage them to place ice on it as soon as possible,” said Cassandra Glodowski, a licensed athletic trainer with ThedaCare Orthopedic Care who works with students at Waupaca High School.

Long-term muscle pain or stiffness is best treated with heat, said Kayla Van Handel, a licensed athletic trainer with ThedaCare Orthopedic Care at ThedaCare Medical Center-New London.

“Heat and ice work differently when it comes to treating injuries or long-term pain,” she said. “In either case, patients need to make sure they are consistent with their treatment. Putting ice on a sore knee for 10 minutes just once is not effective.”

Glodowski said ice helps a muscle feel better by slowing the inflammation that happens after an injury. The best way to use ice on an injury is to apply it for 10 to 15 minutes several times a day for two to three days.  

 “I tell the kids 20 minutes on, 40 minutes off when it comes to using ice,” she said. “Also, never place the ice or icepack directly on the skin. Make sure you wrap it in a towel or else you can harm your skin.”

Heat therapy aids the healing process by increasing blood flow and circulation to a particular area, Van Handel said. Adding heat with a heating pad to the afflicted area soothes discomfort and improves muscle flexibility, she said.

“Heat therapy also relaxes and soothes muscles and helps heal the damaged tissue,” said Van Handel, adding each treatment should last 15 to 20 minutes and can be done several times a day. “If an area is swollen or there is an open wound, avoid applying heat to the area.”

In some case, patients use both heat and cold therapy, Glodowski said. For example, patients with arthritis may use ice to treat acute pain and swelling and heat for joint stiffness.

“Using the right therapy, whether it is heat or ice, can help you feel better more quickly, which is what everyone wants,” she said. “Pairing the cold and heat therapy with an over-the-counter pain reliever or anti-inflammatory will also help the healing process.”

If using heat or ice makes the pain worse, immediately stop since the treatment may make the situation worse, Van Handel said.

“If you have used the treatment for a few days and still don’t feel better, it is time to call your medical provider and discuss some other treatment options,” she said.

For more than 100 years, ThedaCare™ has been committed to finding a better way to deliver serious and complex healthcare to patients throughout Northeast Wisconsin. The organization serves over 200,000 patients annually and employs more than 6,800 healthcare professionals throughout the region. ThedaCare has seven hospitals located in Appleton, Neenah, Berlin, Waupaca, Shawano, New London and Wild Rose as well as 32 clinics in nine counties. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving our specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a non-profit healthcare organization with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs as well as a foundation dedicated to community service.