No matter how hard we work to prevent injuries, living an active lifestyle comes with its fair share of obstacles. Whether it’s a sprained ankle, a sore back, or something else, pain can pop up in a variety of ways. The trick is knowing how to treat your injury to prevent further complications. The age old question seems to be…should I apply heat or ice?

Even seasoned athletes, primary care doctors, and internists seem to be confused when it comes to heat versus ice. So, how do you know which is right for you? Well, you want to think about it this way: apply ice after an activity and apply heat after you’ve been sedentary. Let’s break it down further.

Ice Ice Baby

If something happens – say, you sprain your ankle – while you’re out playing, hiking, or doing some other physical activity, you’ll want to use ice. Why? The purpose of using ice is to quickly reduce swelling and blood flow to the injured area. After an injury or an aggravation, your body’s tendency is to increase blood flow and increase swelling to that area. However, this can be counterproductive to your progression in whatever you may be doing. In this case, you’ll want to use ice to slow down blood flow and swelling. If you were to apply heat in this situation, it would have the opposite effect. Heat would increase blood flow, making the swelling worse.


On that note, you don’t want to apply ice directly to the skin. Be sure to wrap the ice in a towel or other material you have on hand. Applying ice directly to the skin for a prolonged period of time can actually cause further damage like frostbite.

Bring on the Heat

Now you know that if you have bruising and swelling, you’ll want to use ice. So, when do you use heat? The role for heat is for someone who may have a chronic back injury or neck injury. A chronic injury isn’t an immediate one (like a sprained ankle). Rather, chronic pain develops slowly over time. It’s persistent– it may be why you wake up stiff in the morning. Or perhaps you sit at a desk all day and feel stiff and tight upon standing. In this case, you’ll want to apply a heating pad to increase blood flow. This will help to loosen and relax those stiff muscles.

Again, in this case, you don’t want to apply heat that’s burning hot. Be sure to use a heated pad that is a proper temperature– it should not burn your skin. For those with sensory issues, which can stem from something like diabetic neuropathy, it’s also important not to apply either ice or heat to anywhere you can’t feel it. Although applying heat and ice are safe and effective techniques, they can cause injuries if not properly used.

When to Skip Ice and Heat

If you have an open wound, or burned and blistered skin, you won’t want to use either ice or heat. In this case, you’ll want to seek alternative treatments to care for your injuries.

This guide should help you the next time you’re deciding to use heat or ice for an injury. Remember, if you’ve sustained an immediate injury like a sprained ankle, ice is ideal. The sooner you can apply it, the better. It will reduce swelling, muscle spasms, and pain. If you have pain that is chronic and you often feel stiffness in your back or neck, try using a heating pad. Again, you don’t want it to be too hot or use it for too long as you’ll run the risk of burning yourself.