To those individuals who frequently work out and play sports, ice packs and heating pads are old friends. Whether your muscles are feeling tight or super sore, chances are you’ll reach for one or the other to ease the pain. Picking icing or heating may seem like a no-brainer, but the two aren’t necessarily interchangeable. With the help of an orthopedic and sports medicine professional, we break down when to use each method, and when.
When should I be icing my muscles?
Blue ice packs (or frozen peas) are a staple in many athletes’ freezers to heal potential aches and pains. “Ice is an anti-inflammatory. On a basic level, it cools down the capillaries, or blood vessels,” explains Andrew L. Rosen, MD at Upper East Orthopaedics. Inflammation isn’t technically a bad thing—it’s part of the healing process—but our bodies tend to overcompensate. “[Ice] immediately shuts off blood flow to the area so that it doesn’t swell as much and it isn’t as uncomfortable,” Rosen adds.
So, icing is the way to go to treat a swelling bruise, sprained ankle, or a similar pain. The same treatment applies when dealing with an overuse injury, most commonly seen with runners. If you’re aggressively pushing yourself, icing certain muscles (for example, the legs) post-workout will keep your inflammatory response from overreacting. Basically, ice is for injuries and inflammation.
When should I be applying heat?
On the other hand, some athletes turn to heat for soothing muscles. While this treatment is comforting and relaxing, warming you up isn’t its true function. “Essentially, heat does the opposite [of icing],” says Rosen. “It brings blood flow into an area and loosens up soft tissues that are tight.”
If you find yourself with tight hamstrings, for example, during or after a cardio workout, apply heat. This will help those muscles to relax and reduce tension in the area. Heating also comes in handy when you feel a stiff joint or achy muscle. Using heat will help to loosen it up and eventually allow for better mobility in that area.
For these reasons, applying heat before a workout has benefits, too. “If you’ve got a muscle on the tighter side—for instance, an IT band in a leg—heating it before you go on a run will loosen things up a little bit before you get going,” says Rosen.
Choose heat when your muscles feel scrunched up, tense, or lacking their usual range of motion.
How should I be icing or heating?
There are a variety of icing and heating methods for practically every type of muscle pain.
How to Ice
Depending on the size of the area affected, icing could mean utilizing anything from ice cubes to ice baths. In the case of ice cubes, you’ll want to place them in a plastic bag and apply to skin with a cloth or paper towel over the bag to prevent an ice burn. Hold this to the inflamed area for ten to 15 minutes. Blue ice packs are used in the same fashion. These don’t tend to get as cold, though. So, you can leave them on for a half-hour to an hour.
If you’re dealing with a larger injury or multiple injuries, ice baths and plunge pools are the way to go. Rosen considers these two options the ultimate in cryotherapy (aka cold treatment). Only employ these methods under supervision and always check with a doctor before plunging into any ice-filled or freezing waters.
How to Heat
From disposable or microwavable packs to electric pads, there’s a wide selection of heating products to choose from. Smaller packs will heat up rapidly, getting moderately hot and affecting the local area. Larger packs tend to heat a bit slower, diffusing and covering more space. Disposable and microwavable packs don’t really run the risk of overheating. These options typically last 15 to 20 minutes.
Electric heating pads can be used in places that remain sore for longer periods of time, like a back injury. If you’re staying in one place, you can use this option for up to two hours. These pads are typically wrapped in a felt case and most models will turn off or lower the heat after a while to avoid burning.
So, make a mental note: ice for inflammation and heat for relaxation. From there, choose your method—icing or heating—based on the type of muscle irritation affected muscle area. We recommend consulting with a medical professional before starting any kind of icing or heating routine in order to best treat injuries and/or tension.