Should I use heat or ice?

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

It’s a whole lot bigger than the battle of the titans – it’s the battle of heat vs ice!

As physiotherapists we get asked this question... A LOT. And, when it comes down to it, there are both uses for heat and ice.

I’ve injured myself, what do I use?

Ice, ice baby. If you’ve recently hurt yourself, it’s best to use ice, not heat! Your body is going through an inflammatory process which includes tissue damage, acute pain and swelling.

This is a normal natural process where your body is working to immobilize the damaged area so it can repair, although sometimes unfortunately it can be painful.

The best way to prevent a large amount of swelling (and associated pain) is to use the R.I.C.E (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) principle as soon as you can. Typically, you can use this method for injuries for around 24- 72 hours after your injury. Additionally, you might like to use a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (with direction from your doctor) such as ibuprofen to give further relief.

Think of it like this - “Ice is for injuries”.

Use ice for things such as:

· a freshly pulled muscle

· a sprained ankle

· severe bruises

· shin splints.

When should I use heat?

On the other hand, heat is more suited for relief from muscle aches and stiffness and can be used to ease longstanding injuries, joint aches and pains and things such as lower back or neck pain. Using heat increases circulation, metabolism and tissue elasticity. Increased blood flow to the area brings oxygen and nutrients to the tissue and encourages the healing process.

You can use heat for:

  • lower back and neck pain

  • arthritis (do not use heat for acute flare-ups where joint is acutely painful and swollen)

  • muscle cramps, tightness and spasms

  • muscle soreness from overexertion in exercises (e.g. long walks/rides)

  • pain related to posture issues.

When not to use ice and heat

Used incorrectly, both ice and heat can cause minor harm. Heat can make the inflammation worse whereas ice can aggravate symptoms of tightness and stiffness.

Obviously using common sense is important. Don’t use ice when you’re already cold, and avoid using heat if you have a temperature.

Whatever you do, do not use heat on a new injury, this will only exaggerate the inflammation and make the swelling, heat and pain, worse.

If you have pain from a new injury, or you’re suffering from pain due to aches and pains and stiffness that don’t seem to be easing, we recommend booking in with your local Yeronga physiotherapy clinic – Aeon Health Physiotherapy and Rehab!


The reason to use ice and heat is not because they are highly effective, but because they are cheap, easy and mostly safe methods of relief.

We would always recommend a consult with one of our physiotherapists if you’re not able to manage your injury at home, and your comfort level has been compromised.

Click here to check out our range of heat and ice packs we stock in store!

Image: "Ice Pack"by CC Chapman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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