Ice vs Heat for Recovery

If you’ve ever been confused about whether to apply ice or heat to an injury or painful
area, you’re not alone. Both hot and cold therapies can be very beneficial for recovery, but there
are some tips to keep in mind when deciding between the two, based on the most recent


  • Use Ice to treat acute (new) injuries that are accompanied by inflammation and swelling
    • Such as sprains, strains, and bruises.
  • Ice reduces swelling and inflammation by constricting blood vessels.
  • Reducing the swelling can help reduce the pain.
  • After an acute injury, use ice for 2-3 days to minimize swelling.

Ice feels good on a new injury because it temporarily decreases the amount of blood flow
to the injured area and decreases pain nerve sensitivity. This can significantly reduce
inflammation, pain, and swelling. Ice therapy is best for new injuries and the swelling and
inflammation of flare-ups. Apply the treatment as soon as possible to get the most benefit and
elevate the affected area for best results. Never apply cold directly to the skin to avoid possible
skin and tissue damage; wrap the ice or gel pack in a damp towel.

Cold therapy works best and is
safest when used several times a day (as much as every 2 hours) for short periods: 10 to 15
minutes and no more than 20 minutes at a time. Ice therapy is typically only beneficial for the
first 48-72 hours; after that, you want to allow blood flow to promote the body’s natural healing
process. There are some new very effective icing systems that circulate cold water around the
injured area, especially for post surgical recovery.


  • Use heat 3-4 days after the occurrence of an acute injury to encourage the repair phase of
  • Use for chronic (ongoing) non-inflammatory pain or stiffness.
    • Such as arthritis, chronic tendon issues, and back or neck pain.

Heat can relax and soothe sore, tense muscles and help heal damaged tissue by increasing
blood flow. Heat therapy is best for non-acute inflammatory body pain in muscles and joints.
The heat source should be warm, not hot, to avoid burns. Heat may be used for short periods (15
to 20 minutes) or longer periods (30+ minutes), such as a warm bath. Do not use heat on new
bruises, swollen red areas, or open wounds. Heat often works well to get muscles to relax to
improve the effects of massage and stretching.