Applying heat or cold compresses to painful joints or muscles can not only ease
pain, but help speed healing, increase or reduce blood flow and address
inflammation. We often get asked which one is better? Well, the answer is they
both are! Just for different things.
We’ve all rushed for a cold compress or even a bag of frozen peas when
someone has an injury that threatens to become swollen. This is because cold
reduces blood flow, reducing inflammation around the area, swelling and
numbing pain. It’s often best for short term injuries, like sprains and strains or
from impacts or breaks.
Heat has a different effect to cold. It increases blood flow and can be
great at warming up stiff muscles or joints, before exercise or starting your day.
A wheat bag, hot compress or water bottle can ease stiff necks, backs or
muscles, and long term use of heat directly on the skin (be sure it’s not too hot
or causing irritation) can significantly reduce pain, stiffness and increase
flexibility. For most muscular/joint pain & stiffness, heat will be the go to.
In many instances, both, or a mixture of hot and cold, can be useful in
addressing both inflammation, pain and stiffness, hence aiding healing.
Migraine headache can respond well to both – on the neck or forehead, cold
having a numbing effect, heat relieving tension. Coming to know what kind of
pain and issues you have will help in understanding whether hot or cold is
As a general rule of thumb use ice for the first 24 hours following an injury, a
combination of ice & heat for the next 24 and then heat exclusively after that.
Be sure to use a barrier to protect skin from prolonged heat or cold, like a towel
or clothing, and discontinue if irritation occurs. Use only for 15-20 mins at a