When to Use Ice & Heat, Separately and Together

woman holding heat pack against her stomach


At different times in our lives, our mothers, past doctors, or athletic coaches may have told us to put some ice or some heat on an injury. Sometimes they have told us to apply both. But which is right?

Truth be told, both cold and hot treatments are recommended, depending on what you are treating. Here is a guide for deciding whether you should use cold or heat treatment, or both!

Cold (Ice) Treatment

When you sustain an injury like a sprain, hard impact, or pulled muscles that affect your bones, muscles, or tendons, your body’s natural reaction is to send fluid to the damaged area and become inflamed. This inflammation results in stiffness and bruising, and the recovery can take a long time. Cold treatment is best as an immediate response to a sudden injury, and also as a means to slow down blood flow, reduce inflammation, and numb the pain.

It is important that ice is applied as soon as possible after the injury occurs. By slowing blood flow early, less fluid can build up around the injured area, which is what leads to swelling and stiffness.

Heat Treatment

Heat is most effective in the ongoing treatment of chronic pains or during long-term recovery from injury. The application of heat helps increase blood flow in the area, which promotes healing and soothes pain. The use of heat is helpful mainly as a way to promote and speed up the natural healing process your body is undergoing. When it comes to chronic aches, heat also helps muscles relax and work better.

Pain or injury that does not result in swelling should be treated with heat, coupled with active stretching where possible. Heating packs, warm baths, or gentle massages can all be useful ways of heating the area that hurts.   

Both Heat and Cold Treatments

Sometimes the best way to promote recovery for your injury is through the combined use of heat and cold treatments, each playing a different role in the process.

As described earlier, cold is best immediately after the injury, to prevent and reduce inflammation and swelling. However, these reactions from your body can still take place for a while after the initial damage. You may need to keep applying ice periodically for hours or even days after the injury, depending on the severity. But you also want the healing and soothing benefits provided by heat.

So, you alternate between both!

After the initial cold treatment following the injury (around 10 to 20 minutes), you can switch to the heat treatment. It’s hard to say exactly how many times you should alternate, or how long you should have in between heat and cold treatments. It all depends on the severity of the injury, your particular needs, and the way your body reacts. You may decide to alternate by day, using ice in the morning and heat at night, or some other combination.


The point is, both cold and heat treatments are effective when used together in the treating of more severe injuries that require long-term treatment. If you are unsure how to go about treating your specific injury, or require more intensive care, call or visit a Marque Urgent Care center near you.


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