When something hurts, where do you turn? Some people have their trusty cold pack at the ready in the freezer, while others rely on a heating pad. And yes, to some extent, addressing discomfort in your body is a matter of preference. But there are some instances when you should specifically apply heat therapy and others when cold therapy is the best option for your body.
We’re here to help you decide when to fire up that heating pad and when to grab your cold pack.
When to use a heating pad vs. a cold pack
Generally, experts recommend using cold therapy for an acute injury and heat therapy to soothe chronic pain. There are some nuances here, so let’s dig a little bit deeper.
A heating pad and a cold pack work differently. Heat therapy increases circulation, helping an area heal, while cold therapy actually slows circulation, helping to bring down inflammation. As a result, they have different use cases. Let’s look at three:
Before and after a workout
You might use a heating pad before you exercise to quite literally warm up your muscles, easing stiffness, improving flexibility, and soothing discomfort. After your workout, though, you could turn to a cold pack to help calm any irritation you notice in your body.
What about an acute injury, meaning one you just got from a car accident, slip and fall, sports mishap, or something similar? In those cases, a lot of the pain from your injury comes from inflammation. For that, use cold therapy. This helps to bring down swelling and the resulting pain.
For chronic conditions like arthritis, heat therapy generally works better to ease pain. It can help to relax and soothe tight muscles, easing stiffness and bringing you relief. It also improves circulation, supporting your body’s healing processes in the area.
That said, some people with chronic pain find relief from cold therapy, too. Don’t be afraid to try both and find what works best for your specific condition.
Best practices for heat therapy and cold therapy
Whether you’re using a heating pad, a cold pack, or both, knowing some tips and tricks can help you get the best results.
How to use a heating pad
The heating pad should be warm, not hot. You don’t want to burn your skin — and believe it or not, people do all the time. Make sure it feels relaxing and soothing, not scalding.
You can apply the heating pad for anywhere between 15 minutes and an hour.
While a standard hot pack or heating pad delivers surface-level heat, that heat stays at the skin’s surface. If you want to try heat therapy to address a chronic condition, particularly one affecting your joints, you need the heat to reach deeper. For that, choose a far infrared heating pad. Studies have shown it can penetrate 2.36 inches into your body, getting the heat where you actually need it.
Whether you want to use a standard heating pad or a far infrared option, talk to your doctor before using heat therapy if you have multiple sclerosis, diabetes, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
How to use a cold pack
Never put ice directly on your skin. Instead, either get a cold pack specifically designed to treat inflammation or put a towel between your skin and the frozen pack.
Apply the cold therapy for anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes. Don’t go longer than that or it could have adverse effects. You can reapply the cold pack every three hours.
Talk with your doctor before starting cold therapy if you have a condition that causes poor circulation like diabetes or vascular disease.
Clearly, hot and cold therapy can do a lot for your pain and healing processes. Plus, you can get the tools you need to use both at home.