Most of us treat everything from arthritis to muscles sprain to inflammation with ice packs or heating pads. Handling pain with hot and cold pads can be effective for several conditions and injuries. However, it is important to know what kind of injuries benefit more from hot or cold treatment.

The general rule of thumb is go for ice pads for acute injuries or pain, along with inflammation and swelling, while heat pads are used for muscle pain or stiffness.

Heat therapy

Heat therapy functions by promoting circulation and blood flow to a specific area due to rise in temperature. The rise in temperature eases discomfort and aids muscle flexibility. Heat therapy helps to relax and soothe muscles and also heals damaged tissue.

Types of heat therapy

  • Dry heat includes -heating pads, dry heating packs, and even saunas conducted at a warm temperature.
  • Moist heat includes-steamed towels, moist heating packs, or hot baths.
  • Professional heat therapy treatments such as ultrasound, for example, can be used to help pain in tendonitis.

Heat therapy is not safe for open wounds, bruises or swellings

Heat therapy should not be used in preexisting diseases conditions (diabetes, dermatitis, vascular disease, deep vein thrombosis, multiple sclerosis) where the risk of burns or complication due to heat is higher.

Moderate to severe pain can benefit from longer sessions of heat therapy like warm bath, lasting between 30 minutes and 2 hours.

Cold therapy

Cold therapy is also known as cryotherapy. It functions by reducing blood flow to a specific area, that remarkably lowers the inflammation and swelling that cause pain, particularly around a joint or a tendon.

Types of cold therapy

  • Ice packs or frozen gel packs
  • Coolant sprays
  • Ice massage
  • Ice baths 
  • Cryostretching- reduce muscle spasms during stretching
  • Cryokinetics- combines cold treatment and active exercise and can helpful for ligament sprains
  • Whole body cold therapy chambers

Apply an ice pack covered in a towel or ice bath to the injured area. Never place a frozen item directly to the skin as it can damage the skin and tissues. Cold pad to be applied as soon as possible after an injury.

Cold therapy is to be used for a short duration of time, several times a day. About 10-15 minutes is maximum duration - more than that can cause nerve, tissue, and skin damage.

Cold therapy is not safe for an individual with sensory disorders, diabetes, stiff muscles or joints.

The proper use of heat or cold therapy will remarkably increase the efficiency of the treatment. Some conditions will need both. Arthritic patients can use a heating pad for joint stiffness and cold pad for swelling and acute pain. Consult a physician in case of any discomfort caused by heat or cold pad treatment.