Heat vs. Ice: When to Apply Heat, and When to Apply Ice (Situations & Examples)

When you’re an athlete, you’re bound to be in a place where you’re told to either grab a heating pad or a bag of ice to soothe an injury. Whether it’s minor or major, everyone eventually gets to a place where one of these remedies will help to ease some of the pain. But the trick is to know when to use each – or in some situations, both!

Today, we’re breaking it down for you. In which situations do you use a heating pad? And when is it essential for a pack of ice to come into play? Let’s take a peek at the different treatments and learn about their unique benefits.

When To Apply Heat

Firstly, what is heat therapy? According to Healthline:

“Heat therapy works by improving circulation and blood flow to a particular area due to increased temperature. Increasing the temperature of the afflicted area even slightly can soothe discomfort and increase muscle flexibility. Heat therapy can relax and soothe muscles and heal damaged tissue.”

Heating pads, steamed towels, hot baths, and even a trip to the sauna all fall under the “heat therapy” umbrella. And depending on the injury will dictate on where and which option to go with. For example, for full body stiffness will do well with just a hop into a sauna. But a sore lower back could benefit from a localized choice like a heating pad placed directly on the problem area.

It’s important that you stay away from the heat if you have an open wound, inflammation, or swollen areas. These situations will usually call for the opposite remedy (AKA: cold therapy).

Sore Muscles After A Workout

If you haven’t worked out in a while, or been to a batting or pitching lesson over the holiday season, you may be a bit sore after your first time back at it. Afterward, especially the second or third day out, heating pads will work wonders to get your stiffness and soreness loosened up.


Tendinosis is the chronic irritation and stiffness is one’s tendons attached to the joint, according to The Cleveland Clinic. And it’s proposed that heat will relieve its stiffness once any inflammation is gone.

When To Apply Ice

Now we’re onto the ice. What exactly is cold therapy? If we take advice from our friends as Healthline again we learn:

“Cold therapy is also known as cryotherapy. It works by reducing blood flow to a particular area, which can significantly reduce inflammation and swelling that causes pain, especially around a joint or a tendon. It can temporarily reduce nerve activity, which can also relieve pain.”

Ice or gel packs, ice baths, cooling sprays, and cooling chambers are just some of the options you have when it comes to cold therapy. And, again, depending on the injury, depends on which route to take.

Remember, when you have stiff muscles and joints, don’t use the cold to remedy it!

A Freshly-Pulled Muscle

A fresh injury will do well with a pack of ice at its disposal. The cold will help with acute pain and nip the swelling in the bud.

Gout Flare-Up

The Cleveland Clinic taught us that ice will calm down a gout flare-up. And this includes calming the pain which could be in the big toe, instep, ankle, heel, knee, wrist, finger, elbow, etc.

When To Do Both

There may be some situations in which you need to use a combination of both heat and cold therapies. The heat will get those stiff joints moving and the cold will help with acute pain or swelling.

PainScience.com explains, “Alternating between applications of ice and heat is called contrasting therapy. It’s extremely stimulating and is mostly used to facilitate injury recovery.”

Arthritic Patients

Just like we explained, heat therapy will take care of stiff joints. But the cold therapy will help with any pain or inflammation one may have. This makes the combination of both remedies specifically good for arthritic patients.

A Torn Muscle

According to PainScience.com, ice wins here, “but only for the first few days at most, and only if it really is a true muscle injury. A true muscle injury usually involves obvious trauma during the intense effort, causing severe pain suddenly. If the muscle is truly torn, then use ice to take the edge off the inflammation at first. Once the worst is over, switch to heat.”