Ice vs. Heat For Pain

Merrill PT Discusses the debate ice vs. heat for injury recovery.


It’s a question we hear often: when it comes to managing pain, should I use ice or heat? While we can offer some general guidelines to help you decide, it’s essential to recognize that if you’re dealing with conditions like fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis, your body’s response to pain may not fit the usual mold. This means that finding the right approach to pain management may require a more personalized touch. If you’re navigating these complexities, rest assured that we’re here to provide the tailored guidance and support you need to find relief and reclaim your comfort.

Typically, ice is for injuries and after activity and heat is for loosening and relaxing tissues, used before activity.


  • Photo of patient icing a knee injury with a Game Ready, featuring the benefit of heat vs. ice for injuryThe first 24 – 48 hours after an acute injury onset, use ice. This is true even for simple muscle sprains or pulls.
  • After an activity, at the end of the day or when swelling is present, use ice. When things are inflamed, the more you do throughout the day, the more inflamed the area will get. Ice will assist in decreasing pain, inflammation, and swelling.
  • Ice can also be used for chronic conditions like overuse injuries to help control inflammation.

Ways to Ice:

Things to know about icing:

  • Don’t ice for more than 20 minutes
  • Let your tissue fully warm back up before re-icing
  • 20 minutes on, 40 minutes off is a good rule for icing multiple times
  • If you’re icing in an area with superficial nerves (elbow), don’t ice for more than 10 minutes
  • Don’t ice before an activity. You want your muscles warm, not cold!
  • Ice can aggravate symptoms of tightness and stiffness.


  • Heat is typically used to help relax or loosen tissues.
  • Heat will bring more blood flow to the area.
  • Heat is usually used in conditions that are more chronic. This helps stimulate blood flow to the area.
  •  Heat, when needed, is used before activity assisting more blood flow to help loosen and relax the muscles.

Ways to Heat:

  • Heating Pad
  • Hot, wet towel
  • Rice heating pack

Things to know about heating:

  • Avoid heating for long periods
  • Don’t use heat when sleeping to avoid burns
  • Heat can make inflammation significantly worse.

Keep in mind, if your pain lingers beyond a few days, its best to reach out for professional assistance. Don’t hesitate to book an appointment with Merrill PT, by calling us at (715) 539-2740. Our skilled team of physical therapists are ready to assess your injury or discomfort and create a personalized treatment strategy to guide you back to recovery. From a physical therapy perspective, we’ll not only address the symptoms but also work to identify and tackle the root cause of your pain. Your well-being is our foremost concern, and we’re committed to standing by you throughout your journey to wellness, providing support, encouragement, and expertise every step of the way.

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