Fitness Friday: Heat vs. Ice, A Guide to Aches and Injury Care

When it’s impossible to get out of bed because of all those pushups you did at the gym, it’s easy to head straight for the ice pack. A common misconception, applying ice to all injuries is overused and not always effective, and heating is often the way to go for certain injuries. But which ones?

If you didn’t hear about “RICE”—rest, ice, compress, and elevate—in your middle school gym class, you’ve probably been told to ice as a quick remedy for injuries. Ice constricts blood vessels, which relieves inflammation, numbs the injury, and limits bruising, so it should mainly be used to reduce swelling in damaged tissues, diminish pain, and provide temporary relief.

Injuries that fit the icing category: a sprained ankle, a migraine, and a broken bone. You should ice an injury on and off for about 15 to 20 minutes for the first 48 hours after the incident occurs. But be careful—excessive icing can make an injury delay healing because inflammation (what icing reduces) is actually the first step to getting better.

Heat, on the other hand, increases blood flow, which can sooth pain from the nervous system. An increase in blood flow relaxes tight muscles and relieves aching joints. You should generally apply heat to sore or stiff muscles and neck or back spasms—especially pain caused by overworking your muscles, muscle cramps, and “knots.”

Heat is primarily used for relaxation, which is why people opt to take hot baths when they’re stressed. Heating muscles tends to work the same way. To heat a muscle, apply a heating pad on the painful area for about 30 minutes. Be patient—it may take longer for heat therapy to work on major muscle injuries.

It’s important not to mix up the two remedies, since heat can increase inflammation while ice can make muscle tension worse. Because heat increases blood flow, applying heat to a new injury can cause the pain to get worse and the injury to swell up even more. In the same way, you should never ice muscle cramps, since it can cause the muscle to feel tighter and slow the healing process.

So next time you’re faced with neck pain from midterm stress or being hunched at your desk, grab a heating pad to relax your muscles. Save the ice for pain caused by bruises or swelling from recent injuries. And don’t forget, a little ice cream can always help numb the pain, too.


by Sarah Basile