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How do I know whether to use ice or heat for pain?

As a general rule, if pain involves muscle, use heat. Ice is usually used for other types of pain and inflammation.

Debra Fulghum Bruce PhD
Healthcare Specialist

No matter what type of pain you experience, when the pain first starts to flare, it’s important to treat it immediately with compresses of either ice or heat on the painful site—whichever brings you the most relief. For instance, ice can reduce the pain of an injury, such as a sprain or strain, if used at least 10 minutes each waking hour for the first 78 hours after injury. Moist heat may give relief to chronic pain, such as arthritic hips or monthly menstrual cramps. You may use a moist heating pad, a warm, damp towel or a hydrocollator pack. You can also stand or sit on a stool in the shower and let warm water hit the painful area on your body. When you use moist heat to decrease pain and swelling, use this twice a day or more, at least 20 minutes each time. You may want to alternate the ice compresses with the moist heat for optimal benefit. You may use the moist heat for a few minutes just before and after stretching or resistance or aerobic exercise to make it less painful and more effective.

You won't likely need to alternate ice and heat to treat an injury. In this video, Jared Salinsky, DO, an orthopedic surgeon with Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, explains the reasons you might need ice or heat and when you should use one.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.