Some injuries require heating with a pad for relief. Others need cooling with ice. Learn how to tell the difference, and what kinds of remedies are available.

Drugstore shelves are full of heating and cooling remedies. Heating pads, cold packs, gels, creams, patches… Sometimes products even do both. We all know that some kinds of pain respond to heat, while others respond to cold. But how can you tell which is which?

Heating or Cooling?

A general rule is that heating is effective for muscle pain and stiffness. But for acute injuries or pain, as well as inflammation and swelling, cooling remedies are the way to go. Let’s have a look at some of the most common ones.

Man cooling his knee with a bag of ice.

Image CC 2.0 by Simon James. Via Flickr.

Ice Pack

The good old ice pack. This cooling remedy is cheap, fast, and easy to find. You can buy an ice pack at the drug store, or make your own with a ziplock bag and some ice from your freezer. Some people even use bags of frozen green peas! (Peas are small enough to conform to the shape of whatever you’re icing.) Some packs have real ice, and others use a chemical gel. With some, you have to freeze them first, while you can activate others by squeezing or shaking. Ice packs come in different shapes and sizes. You can even invest in a decorative ice pack holder if you’re going to be using one more than occasionally. Do not use an ice pack for more than 20 minutes at a time, as this can cause damage to the skin. has an excellent guide to different kinds of cold packs.

Olympic weightlifter Karyn Marshall taking an ice bath.

Image CC 2.5 by Dr. Karyn Marshall. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Ice Baths

Ice baths, or cold water immersion, are a controversial cooling treatment. The theory is that immersion in cold water helps to repair micro-injuries and reduce swelling. But don’t just jump into a bathtub filled with ice. Even if you don’t have a heart problem, a cold dip can be a shock to the system. In addition, a recent study found that a warm bath, gentle stretching, and massage do more for post-workout muscle soreness than ice baths.

If you still want to try ice baths, experts have some good advice for doing it safely. First, specialists recommend a water temperature of between 54 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a lot warmer than ice water! Second, ice baths should not last longer than 6-8 minutes. Spending more time than this immersed in cold water can be dangerous, especially the more you lower the temperature. Finally, after an ice bath, you should take a warm shower immediately. You can find a guide to safe ice baths at

Cooling Gel for Muscle Pain

Using a cooling gel for muscle pain will give gentle relief for arthritis, minor sprains, and bruising. There are many different kinds of cooling gels available over the counter, with various active ingredients. One of the most common ingredients is methyl salicylate. has a guide to safely using methyl salicylate. Some people prefer arnica, which is a plant extract. Cooling gels come as cream, ointments, or patches.

Hot-Cold Remedies

Some remedies, like Icy-Hot, combine heating and cooling. Ingredients like cayenne make the skin feel hot. Other ingredients like methyl salicylate and menthol make the skin feel cool. Heat and cool alternate, and the combination distracts you from the actual pain. In general, you can use a hot-cold gel in the same way as a cold gel. You can use it for minor muscle and joint pain, bruising, and arthritis.

Man treating muscle soreness with IcyHot.

Image CC by 2.0, Photo by Incase, Via Flickr.

When to use Heat or Ice for Pain

So, how do you know when to use heat or ice for pain? In summary:

Heat can relax muscles and lubricate joints. Heat relieves muscle and joint stiffness. In addition, it eases muscle spasms. Heat increases blood flow to help heal damaged tissues. Use heat for:

  • Encouraging damaged tissue to heal
  • Easing muscle and joint stiffness
  • Arthritis pain
  • Chronic pain
  • Tension or stress-related pain
  • Injuries or conditions older than six weeks

Cooling can reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain. Experts also recommend it for acute injuries. Use cooling remedies for:

  • Acute injuries like sprains and strains
  • Pulled muscles
  • Chronic inflammatory arthritis
  • Gout flare-ups
  • Tendonitis
  • Injuries less than six weeks old
  • Sports injuries
  • Migraines

Want to know more?

Plenty of information is available on the Internet. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Featured image CC by 2.0, by Barta IV, via Flickr.

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