Heat or Ice?

January 22, 2015 | Chiropractic, Lifestyle, Wellness

This question comes up in our office on a daily basis: should I use heat or ice on my injury. Here is a breakdown of when and how to use each:


What does it do?

Heat opens up blood vessels, which increase blood flow to the area, relaxes tense muscles and helps alleviate pain.

When to use it?

Heat is a great way to help loosen up stiff joints and tight muscles, it is also a good method of pain relief for tension headaches and other chronic conditions. Always wait 48-72 hours after an injury before considering heat therapy. When in doubt, use ice. 

Safety Tips

  • treat for no longer than 20 minutes at a time
  • do not lie on a hot pack to avoid falling asleep and potentially burning yourself.
  • Do not use heat if you have no feeling in the affected body part.
  • Never use heat if there is swelling or bruising. 
  • Do not apply heat directly to the skin, use a thin towel.
  • Do not use heat if you have poor circulation, such as if you have diabetes.
  • Wait one hour in between heat treatments.


What does it do?

Cold therapy slows down the blood flow to an injury, which reduces swelling, inflammation, and pain.

When to use it?

Ice should be used right after an injury or after an injury that aggravates a chronic condition. Ice is good for migraine headaches, bumps, sprains, and strains that may occur with sports, slips & falls or lifting. Cold therapy is also beneficial for minor burns by applying cold water from the faucet. Again, when in doubt, use ice!

Safety tips:

  • Treat for no longer than 20 minutes at a time.
  • During treatment, check skin every 5 minutes to make sure there is no damage, such as freeze burn (skin would become reddened or blistered, just as when burned with heat).
  • Do not place ice or packs directly on the skin, use a thin towel.
  • Wait one hour between cold treatments.

What to use?

A flexible gel ice pack like the one pictured above is ideal. A bag of frozen peas can do the trick if you don’t have an ice pack handy. Gel packs can also be slowly heated in the microwave oven and used for heat therapy.

You can make your own flexible gel pack by following these instructions:

  • Fill the plastic freezer bag with 1 cup of rubbing alcohol and 2 cups of water.
  • Try to get as much air out of the freezer bag before sealing it shut.
  • Place the bag and its contents inside a second freezer bag to contain any leakage.
  • Leave the bag in the freezer for at least an hour.
  • When it’s ready, place a towel between the gel pack and bare skin to avoid burning the skin.