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Pain relief: heat pack vs ice pack

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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Heat and ice can be great tools for helping treat or ease a wide range of ailments from chronic pain to injury and inflammation. They can also help in certain medical conditions such as arthritis. But which one to use? The general rule is that ice helps with swelling and inflammation whereas heat aids healing and reduces muscle stiffness or spasms. Let’s get a bit more specific, and get you on the road to recovery.

Doctor’s advice

Is heat or ice better?

Both are great natural healers, but they are best used at different times in recovery.

If you have a new injury or a flare-up of arthritis, put something cold on it initially, like an ice pack. Injury causes blood to rush to the area, bringing with it lots of inflammatory biochemicals - too much of this causes significant swelling and pain, and it can be damaging. Ice is good in the first couple of days after an injury.

Heat acts in the opposite way, encouraging blood to flow to the area of injury, bringing with it vital nutrients and oxygen to speed up healing. Warmth also allows the muscles to relax and become more flexible, helping you get some stretching exercises in to aid recovery and feel better. It’s the best thing for an injury after the first two or three days, and it can help longstanding pain such as hip or back problems.

How do I use ice packs?

For cold therapy, ice packs can be very effective. These can be homemade ones such as a bag of frozen peas, or you can buy ice packs from your pharmacy, and these are good for molding around a specific area or joint.

Make sure your ice pack is wrapped in a towel or some other material, to avoid causing damage to your skin and the tissues underneath. Ice packs should only be applied for about 10 minutes, and certainly not more than 20 minutes at a time. You can repeat this two or three times a day, spread out across the day.

Andy Murray (along with other elite athletes) is a firm believer that whole body ice baths help aid recovery of his sore muscles after a tennis match. While this seems an extreme version, it suggests that there is good evidence for a cold compress as the first stage in helping you recover from injury.

How do I use heat packs?

Heat can be applied in many different ways, with heat packs being one quick and efficient way. They help target warmth to a specific area, which is ideal when there is a particular problematic joint or muscle ache.

You can buy hot compresses from the pharmacy or make your own from a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel. Make sure the hot water bottle is warm and not boiling and apply it to the area for no more than 30 minutes. You can use it a couple of times a day, but take care that your skin is not getting irritated.

For whole body muscle soreness or tightness, you can try soaking in a warm bath.

How do I use them for headaches or migraines?

Ice and heat packs can also be useful in treating headaches and migraines. Either may work for you, but ice packs generally win out in easing migraines and heat packs soothe headaches, especially tension headaches. Experiment with what works best for you: wrap either in a towel and place it on the back of your neck, crown of your head or your temples for relief.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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