Sore muscles and joints can be the product of a variety of activities or injuries. Sometimes these feelings are a good sign of muscle-building, and other times they can be a red flag to visit your doctor. You’ve probably heard of applying ice and heat to promote healing, but when should you use each method?
The guidelines below can help you determine what the best course of action is to relieve your pain. However, it’s best to consult your doctor if you are experiencing prolonged or painful stiffness and aches.
Size of the therapy
Before you decide whether to apply heat or cold therapy, you’ll need to pinpoint what size your pain is. There are generally three categories your pain can fall into: local, regional, or whole body. It’s recommended that you contact a professional for whole body pain rather than attempt to treat it on your own. But if your discomfort is local or regional, the at-home guidelines below can help you.
Inflamed tissue is the source of the red, puffy areas you might see after rolling an ankle or overextending your back while lifting. These inflamed areas are full of nerve activity and blood flow while your body works to fix the problem quickly, especially right after an injury happens. However, applying cold to the area can reduce the blood flow and nerve activity that’s overstimulating your joints or muscles.
- Right after an incident occurs to reduce swelling.
- If your muscle or joint feels warm to the touch and agitated.
- When a muscle spasm is occurring.
- If you have an existing condition that causes poor circulation.
- On stiff muscles or joints (which is better treated by heat therapy).
How to apply
First and foremost, never apply ice or an ice pack directly to the skin without covering it with a paper towel or cotton-based covering, as this can damage skin tissue.
Use cold therapy in short amounts, no more than twenty minutes at a time. Try the tried and true “ten off, ten on” method, where you apply a cold compress for ten minutes and leave it off for the next ten minutes until it starts to feel better.
Notice that the term heat therapy intentionally avoids the word hot. Heat can be helpful for relaxing parts of your body by improving circulation and blood flow to the affected area. Improving the blood flow can reduce feelings of discomfort related to arthritis or stiff muscles. Think about when you take a warm bath, typically it feels relaxing—the same goes for applying heat to parts of your body.
- Dry heat: heating pad and heat packs. This type is best for spasm-type aches.
- Moist heat: steamed towels, warm baths, and moist heat wraps. This type of heat is best for stiff aches.
- If your muscles and joints feel stiff with less range of motion than usual.
- Tight, sore areas that feel cramped. Heat therapy can be especially helpful for menstrual cramping or lower abdominal IBS-related cramping.
- If you have a preexisting condition, such as diabetes, heart disease, or multiple sclerosis (MS), that puts you at a higher risk for burns or high blood pressure.
- If the area in question is either bruised or swollen. Contact your doctor about suspicious bruising with no known cause.
- If your affected area has an open wound. Dress the wound, and wait for it to heal before you proceed with with heat therapy.
How to apply
Just like cold therapy, you shouldn’t introduce a heat pack directly to your skin without a covering. Apply dry heat therapy in increments, typically 15–20 minutes at a time. If your heating pad has settings, always use low-to-medium heat first before high-heat so you don’t shock your body with too much heat at once.
Moist heat therapy is generally more affective because your body can absorb it easier through the skin.
Keep your pain at bay with heat or cold therapy, but remember to log and track your symptoms in case they worsen or persist longer than usual. This way, you know when it’s time to consult a health professional for assistance with pain management.