Heat Or Ice – Which Is Better? [Infographic]

You workout, eat well, and stay hydrated. You’ve been doing everything right with regards to taking care of your body. Somehow injuries still seem to come up and throw off your groove. So what is the best way to speed up the recovery process so that you can get back at it? Should you apply heat? Ice?

Both heat and ice have been used for speeding up the recovery process after an injury. However, the appropriate time to use each is specific to both you and your injury. This article will give you the knowledge that you need about both strategies so that you can make an informed decision on how to best handle your injury situation…  

Ice, Ice, Baby

When you apply ice, your skin receptors sense the cold. They respond by blocking some of the pain that is felt from your injury. In a way, ice tricks your mind into focusing on the cold rather than the pain. As you can imagine, this is a huge benefit when dealing with a nagging injury!

When you get injured, your body has an inflammatory response. Icing helps with inflammation by causing your blood vessels to narrow, this is known as vasoconstriction. This response decreases blood flow and in turn lessens the inflammatory response of your injury. Inflammatory response, vasoconstriction, blood vessels… all the science mumbo-jumbo aside, ice simply reduces blood flow to your injury and helps takes away the pain for awhile.

When Should You Apply Ice?

As mentioned earlier in the article, icing is appropriate in certain situations but not others. Let’s take a look at when icing would be applicable and when it wouldn’t be such a good idea.

Ice when…

  • If the injury occurs suddenly and begins to swell
  • Soft tissue is involved (sore muscles)
  • After surgery to reduce swelling

It’s important to be proactive when applying ice to injuries. When you realize that your injury requires ice, it should be applied immediately. Waiting too long can reduce the effectiveness and it may take longer for you to completely recover.

Avoid ice…

  • With stiff joints because it will make you even more stiff
  • Before a workout – icing will reduce blood flow and we want good blood flow during a workout)
  • If you have high blood pressure – icing can raise both your diastolic and systolic blood pressure even more because of the drop in blood flow throughout your blood vessels
  • On wounds – slows the healing process
  • If you have poor circulation – vasoconstriction from icing limits circulation. Adding that to existing circulation issues is asking for trouble
  • With chronic injuries 

Clearly ice has its benefits but only when the timing is right. If ice is the answer for your injury, remember to be proactive and apply it as quickly as you can! Keep the ice on your injury for 15-20 minutes at a time. Icing multiple times each day until you’re fully recovered is considered best practice.


Photo courtesy of Dominique Groom

Handling The Heat

So, you know all about icing injuries but what about heat? Well, heat is opposite of ice, right? You will notice that a lot of what you will learn about heating injuries is the exact opposite of what you learned about icing them.

For starters, heat improves blood flow by opening up your blood vessels and creating a smoothing effect. The opening up of blood vessels is known as vasodialation (opposite of vasoconstriction) and actually speeds up the recovery process by increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to your injury.

Heating is also great for loosening up overly tight muscles and priming them for exercise. This is why warming up before exercise is so important!. It gets your blood flowing and muscles stimulated, which greatly reduces your chances of getting injured. Did you hear that? Warming up will greatly reduce your chanced of getting injured in the first place! Just do it 

When Should You Apply Heat?

As mentioned with ice, applying heat needs to be done methodically to receive the best results and improve recovery time. Let’s dive into when heating would be appropriate versus when it wouldn’t be such a good idea.

Heat when… 

  • You’re experiencing chronic pain – injuries lasting longer than 72 hours
  • Muscle pain or soreness is involved
  • The pain stems from arthritis
  • You’re experiencing old & reoccurring injuries

Unlike ice, heat is best after the fact. Remember, getting ice to your injury as soon as possible is best practice. However, heating may not take place until days later!

Avoid heat…

  • Right away with acute, or sudden injuries
  • When there is still swelling and/or inflammation – as you learned, heating will only increase the inflammatory response

After learning about icing injuries, heating was simple because it’s just the opposite. As for how often and how long you should be heating for, the same rules as icing apply. Place heat on your injury for 15-20 minutes, multiple times per day. Be sure to do this until the pain goes down and becomes more bearable, especially with chronic injuries.

It’s important to be able to make the distinction between when you should be applying ice versus heat and vice versa. Nobody wants to get injured but it’s a reality when you are constantly placing physical demands on your body. When done correctly, heating and icing will greatly improve recovery time and have you back to the gym in no time!

Whether it’s a big or small injury, you now have all the knowledge that you need to make an informed decision to apply heat or ice. Remember, be proactive and take care of those “owwies.” If you don’t, something small may manifest into a more chronic condition that will keep you out of activity for even longer!


Related: 9 Exercise Mistakes You’re Probably Making


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