Ice or Heat for Pain – Which is Better and Why

Ice vs. Heat – The Epic Battle!

You’ve just sprained your ankle, felt a strain in your back, or had an unfortunate fall. Do you apply ice or heat?

Heat might be the most comfortable of the two but, which is better for your recovery?

We asked Dr. Anil Kaushal, our chiropractor in Burlington and Milton locations, and he nodded knowingly. “Ah. The epic battle,” he said, agreeing that the confusion is widespread. “It could mean the difference between a quick recovery and one that is prolonged. It’s important to understand the difference.”

Check out his explanation…

Without question, Ice is the go-to treatment for acute injuries. In other words, injuries like sprained ankles, falls, or any type of trauma to the body.


It’s simple. Ice constricts blood vessels, decreasing blood flow, which in turn, reduces swelling and inflammation. Your body will naturally over-respond to an injury by increasing the blood flow to it. Ice helps keep the inflammation in check and also numbs a bit of the pain.

To be most effective, ice the correct way:

• Try to apply the ice immediately following the injury. If ice is unavailable, find ANYTHING that is frozen from your freezer.

• Continue with the ice for up to 72 hours.

• Focus on the area of injury. I’m not a fan of “Ice Baths” or icing large diffuse areas. Remember what we are trying to do – reduce swelling to the injury. So, logically, it’s best to stick to the specific area for more effective treatment.

• Ice is always applied after activity.

• Ice for 10 minutes and then remove to allow the body to return to core temperature. Then, ice again another 10 minutes. This type of interval icing is referred to as “time blocks”. Although a little annoying, you will find this is significantly more effective than leaving an ice pack on for long periods of time.

• Keep your ice pack COLD. Remember you are using ICE. A semi-cold ice pack is really just faking it.

Now, what about heat?

Heat can also provide just as much benefit to certain types of injuries. I am constantly recommending it to my patients. In fact, I use heat prior to most of the treatments I practice at my clinics. In my practice I am most consistently exposed to chronic pain cases and heat can be key in their management.


It’s Simple. Heat will dilate blood vessels, increasing blood flow, which then brings oxygen and nutrients to the injured area. Overall, this decreases pain, promotes healing and most importantly relaxes tight muscles. So

How do you use heat effectively?

• Only use heat for chronic injuries (new injuries MUST be iced).

• Just like with icing, focus the area of the problem and apply the heat there.

• If you are going to use heat at home, try to leave it on for at least 15-20 mins.

• Using a heat-pad is great before bed. If you’re using an electric heat-pad, remember to turn it off before falling asleep.

Deciding between ice or heat for pain relief is important because if you apply heat to an acute, inflamed injury, you will make it worse. Similarly, if you ice down a tense muscular trigger point, it can spasm and become incredibly painful. It is important to use caution when hurt and if you are unsure, consult an expert for advice.

Food for thought:

All that’s been said should be taken with a grain of salt. At the end of it all, research shows benefits to both heat and ice. Additionally, being in tune with your body can help you decide when one is best. However, as my patients all know, the mental component is far more important than the physical. Use whatever feels better to you.

If you hate the feeling of an ice pack, chances are all your adverse emotions will make any icing technique less effective at reducing your discomfort. Heat will also not help you if you already feel flush. Your personal preference is probably the most important factor in all of this. So if you begin with one and dislike it, switch to the other and see how it goes.

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About Dr. Anil Kaushal

Dr. Anil Kaushal operates 2 successful rehabilitation clinics in Burlington and Milton Ontario. His practice is dedicated to helping members of the local community rehabilitate from serious injuries.

Dr. Anil Kaushal operates 2 successful rehabilitation clinics in Burlington and Milton Ontario. His practice is dedicated to helping members of the local community rehabilitate from serious injuries.

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Posted in Health tips, Uncategorized