Pain Free Lifestyle

Healthy Living  >  Pain Relief

Which is better for certain kinds of pain: heat, ice, or moist heat

  • Dr. Steve Young
  • 3 Apr, 2023

As a physical therapist, I often recommend heat, ice, and moist heat therapy for musculoskeletal pain. Each therapy has its own benefits and drawbacks, and understanding when to use each one can help you manage your pain and promote healing.

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy, also called thermotherapy, is a common way to treat chronic pain and stiffness caused by tight muscles or other long-term conditions. Heat works by increasing blood flow to the affected area, which helps relax muscles and reduce pain.

When to Use Heat Therapy:

Chronic conditions: If you have a chronic condition, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia, heat therapy can help reduce pain and stiffness.

Muscle tightness: If you have tight muscles, heat therapy can help to relax the muscles and reduce pain.

Pre-workout warm-up: If you are about to engage in a workout or exercise, heat therapy can help to warm up your muscles and prevent injury.

However, there are also some common problems people experience when using heat therapy:

Lack of pain relief: Some people may find that heat therapy does not provide enough pain relief for their symptoms.

Burns: If you apply heat therapy for too long or at too high a temperature, it can cause burns, which can be very painful.

Circulatory problems: If you have poor circulation, heat therapy can cause further damage or delay the healing process.

Ice Therapy

Commonly used to lessen pain and swelling brought on by recent injuries or overuse is ice therapy, also known as cryotherapy. This type of pain relief works by constricting blood vessels and reducing blood flow to the affected area, which helps to reduce inflammation and pain.

When to Use Ice Therapy:

Acute injuries: If you have recently injured yourself, such as with a sprain, strain, or bruise, apply ice to the affected area as soon as possible. Ice therapy can help reduce swelling and prevent further damage to the affected tissues.

Inflammation: If you have a condition that causes inflammation, such as arthritis or tendonitis, ice therapy can help reduce pain and inflammation.

Muscle soreness: If you have sore muscles after a workout, ice therapy can help reduce pain and speed up the recovery process.

However, there are also some common problems people experience when using ice therapy:

Lack of pain relief: Some people may find that ice therapy does not provide enough pain relief for their symptoms.

Skin irritation: Ice therapy can cause skin irritation, especially if you apply the ice directly to the skin. To avoid skin irritation, wrap the ice in a towel or use a commercial ice pack.

Frostbite: If you leave the ice on for too long or apply it at too low a temperature, it can cause frostbite, which can be very painful.

Moist Heat Therapy

Moist heat therapy is another type of heat therapy that is often recommended for musculoskeletal pain. This therapy involves applying heat that is slightly wet or damp to the affected area rather than dry heat. Moist heat therapy is known to penetrate deeper into the skin, making it more effective at reducing pain and inflammation.

When to Use Moist Heat Therapy:

Muscle spasms: If you have muscle spasms, moist heat therapy can help to relax the muscles and reduce pain.

Joint stiffness: If you have stiffness in your joints, moist heat therapy can help to increase blood flow and reduce stiffness.

Chronic pain: If you have chronic pain, such as back pain or arthritis, moist heat therapy can help reduce pain and stiffness.

Common problems people experience when using moist heat therapy:

Skin irritation: moist heat therapy can cause skin irritation, especially if you apply it directly to the skin. To avoid skin irritation, wrap the moist heat source in a towel or use a commercial moist heat pack.

Lack of pain relief: Some people may find that moist heat therapy does not provide enough pain relief for their symptoms.

Burns: If you apply moist heat therapy for too long or at too high a temperature, it can cause burns, which can be very painful.

It is important to note that moist heat therapy should not be used for acute injuries, as it can increase inflammation and cause further damage.

When to Use a Combination of Heat and Ice Therapy:

In some cases, a combination of heat and ice therapy can be more effective than using either therapy alone. This is known as "contrast therapy" and involves alternating between heat and ice therapy.

When to Use Contrast Therapy:

Muscle strains: If you have a muscle strain, contrast therapy can help reduce pain and promote healing.

Tendinitis: If you have tendinitis, contrast therapy can help reduce pain and inflammation.

Arthritis: If you have arthritis, contrast therapy can help reduce pain and stiffness.

Start with a few minutes of heat therapy, then a few minutes of ice therapy to use contrast therapy. Repeat this cycle for about 30 minutes, ending with ice therapy.

Alternating between heat and ice functions as a pumping mechanism to get rid of fluid at the site of the injury. Getting rid of fluid means pain relief.

However, there are also some common problems people experience when using contrast therapy:

Skin irritation: Both heat and ice therapy can cause skin irritation, especially if applied directly to the skin. To avoid skin irritation, wrap the heat or ice source in a towel or use a commercial heat or ice pack.

Burns or frostbite: If the heat or ice therapy is applied for too long or at too high or low a temperature, it can cause burns or frostbite, which can be very painful.

You can see where heat, ice, and moist heat therapy are all effective treatments for your musculoskeletal pain, although each therapy has its own benefits and drawbacks. Understanding when to use each one can help you manage your pain and promote healing.

References:

  • American Physical Therapy Association. (n.d.). Heat or cold: Which is best for your injury? Retrieved from https://www.choosept.com/resources/detail/heat-or-cold-which-is-best-for-your-injury
  • Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Ice or heat? The ultimate guide to treating pain. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/ice-or-heat-the-ultimate-guide-to-treating-pain/
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. (2021). Treatment for common hip conditions. Retrieved from https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/hip-problems/advanced#tab-treatment

Related Articles

Healthy Living

From Illness to Wellness: The Role of Positive Language in Healing

  • Dr. Steve Young
  • 27 Mar, 2023
Read More keyboard_arrow_right

Healthy Living

DIY Post-Op Pain at Home

  • Dr. Steve Young
  • 3 Apr, 2023
Read More keyboard_arrow_right

Healthy Living

Top tips for managing knee pain

  • Dr. Steve Young
  • 3 Apr, 2023
Read More keyboard_arrow_right

Healthy Living

Don't Let Headaches Control Your Life: Unusual Causes and Natural Remedies

  • Dr. Steve Young
  • 27 Mar, 2023
Read More keyboard_arrow_right