When To Apply Heat or Cold

If you sustain an injury, have any cramping or other types of pain, you may ask yourself, "Do I ice it or do I apply heat?"

The answer to that question is surprisingly simple.

To determine what to apply to an injury depends if you want to constrict or dilate the blood vessels surrounding an injury or the source of pain. Generally speaking, icing an injury is recommended on the onset of an injury to reduce inflammation. Heating is best when cramping occurs due to constriction of blood vessels.

Here are some tips and information to help you find the best natural relief for your pain.

Icing An Injury

Icing is recommend if an individual has experienced an acute injury, or suffers from a chronic injury.

What are Acute Injuries

Examples of acute injuries include:

  • Sprains
  • Strains
  • Dislocations
  • Broken Bones
  • Concussions
  • Fractures
  • Tears
  • Bruising

Acute injuries usually are the result of a single traumatic event usually involving a sudden movement or damage sustained during a physical activity.

Unlike chronic injuries, these types of injuries usually occur in under 48 hours.

What are Chronic Injuries 

Chronic injuries are injuries sustained by a repeated activity.

Also known as overuse injuries, they usually are slow to develop and last a long time.

Examples of chronic injuries include:

  • Tennis Elbow
  • Carpal Tunnel
  • Shin Splits
  • Stress Fractures
  • Runners Knee
  • Groin Pull
  • Hamstring Strain

woman icing elbow

How to Treat Acute and Chronic Pain

In medicine, the best way to treat pain is prevention.

Here is a list of things to consider to prevent injuries:

  • Before doing any physical activity, make sure that you wear appropriate clothing and have proper equipment.
  • Make sure that you have footwear designed for the activity.
  • Warm up
  • Stretch
  • Make sure the difficulty level is appropriate with your ability
  • Remove any obstacles or hazards that can interfere with the activity
  • At the first sign of pain, stop and rest.
  • Ice muscles after a workout or strenuous physical activity.

Generally speaking, whenever you experience pain in any activity you should stop.

When you experience pain and you have stopped to rest the affect part of the body, take an anti-inflammatory over the counter drug to help stop the swelling.

At this point, it is recommended to apply a cold compress to help reduce swelling.

Although unpleasant and painful, swelling is the way the body sends help to the injured part of the body.

It is when the brain signals an increase of fluids and white blood cells to help begin the healing process.

Sadly, this process is painful.

Using a cold compress can help alleviate some of this discomfort by compressing the blood vessels that cause the excess swelling.

What is a Cold Compress

A cold compress is something cold that is applied to an injury to help reduce pain and swelling.

Cold compresses can take many forms:

  • Cold wet wash cloths
  • Bags of frozen vegetables
  • Frozen meat in plastic bags
  • Bags of ice
  • Lavabags 

How to make a Cold Compress 

To make a cold compress, all you need to do is find a material that can remain cold for an extended period of time.

The most common form of cold compresses are bags of ice.

By placing a bag of ice on an injury, an individual can begin to experience relief.

Although effective, bags of ice often melt and leak when used.

Unless you don't mind getting wet when using a cold compress, it is recommended to use objects that are not water based.

Many individuals turn to frozen food stuffs as a convenient compress.

Unlike the bags of ice, they seldom leak.

However, the contents of the bag eventually thaw, making the food unconsumable.

The Ideal Cold Compress

The elements that make the ideal cold compress are:

  • Ability to remain cold
  • Doesn't leak
  • Doesn't result in spoiled food
  • Moldable to the inflicted area
  • Durable casing
  • Reusable

There are many products that use liquid beads and gels that freeze and offer many of these elements, but after a while they begin to break down.

Lavabags, offered by LAVAHQ is one of the most versatile, durable and longest lasting cold compresses on the market.

All that you need to do is place a Lavabag in the freezer and use it when needed.

No leaks.

No rotting food.

Nothing but form fitting cold relief.

Also, unlike other cold compresses, Lavabags aren't uncomfortably cold when first placed on the injury, making it easier to keep the compress on the inflicted area longer.

Other Uses for Cold Compresses

Use a cold compress whenever you experience swelling:

  • Head aches
  • Eye fatigue
  • Migraines



Using Heat for Pain

Too much blood flow causes pain for acute and chronic injuries, but the lack of blood causes cramping.

As cold can help constrict blood vessels, heat can dilate them allowing blood to flow to needed areas.

Heat is the best remedy if you are experiencing any muscle pain or stiffness.

Muscle Pain

If muscle tissue doesn't receive enough blood, cramping can occur.

This can happen when participating in various events where the body may redirect blood to a certain area of the body or unable to transport blood fast enough, depriving areas of the body of the normal blood flow.

An example of this includes running, where blood isn't able to reach the some of the muscles of the leg quickly enough to maintain the activity level.

Using Heat for Stiffness

Before a workout ore strenuous activity, it is recommended to apply heat to the muscles to increase blood flow to them.

This will help decrease stiffness and other discomforts that might be experienced during and after a work out.

Do not apply heat to areas of the body after a workout because it may contribute to swelling.

If you experience stiffness in the neck, back, arms, or legs, using a heating pad can help relax muscles and loosen them up.

Other Types of Cramping

Another very common form of muscle pain are menstrual cramps.

Using heat is one of the best natural remedies when it comes to relieving period cramps.

A uterus is attached with several muscles and ligaments.

When these muscles contract, the results can be very painful.

Heat helps these muscles to get the blood they need so that the pain of cramping can be reduced.

How to Apply Heat

There are several ways to apply heat to muscles to help relieve cramping and other muscle pain:

  • Warm bath or Shower
  • Heating pads such as Lavabags
  • Muscle gels and topical ointments

Although a nice warm bath can do wonders for aching muscles and joints, it isn't always convenient to hop into a tub before a work out or at the first signs of pain.

That is why heating pads are generally the go to when it comes to applying heat for pain.

The elements that make a great heating pad include:

  • Ability to be heated
  • Ability to retain heat
  • Conforms to body
  • Weighted
  • Durable
  • Reusable
  • Doesn't spoil
  • Doesn't burn

Many people turn to rice socks and other food stuffed heating pads for relief.

However, testing done by the author has shown that the best heating pad in the market is the Lavabag, which is made of volcanic sand which not only out performs traditional heating pads, but can last a life time.

Another aspect that makes Lavabags a great tool in pain management is it's versatility.

Because of the indestructible nature of the volcanic sand which make up it's contents, Lavabags can be both heated and frozen to provide the comfort a suffering individual needs.

Man holding hurt knee

What Causes Pain

Now that we know how to treat different types of pain, let's talk about what causes pain in the first place.

Has anyone ever told you that the pain you experience is mostly in your head?

As callous as that statement is, it's true.

When you break a leg or have painful cramping, the injured or throbbing area isn't what is causing the painful sensation.

It's the brain.

That's because the body has a network of nerves that connect every part of the body to the brain.

Pain is the body's warning system that something is wrong.

Scientists describe it as, "an unpleasant feeling in our body that makes us want to stop and change our behavior." (The Conversation)

To the average pain sufferer, that is a pretty callous statement.

How Pain is Detected

Specialized nerves that can distinguish when there is a possibly dangerous change in the body's chemical balance, temperature, or pressure are called nociceptors.

These miniature danger detectors tell the brain that something is wrong.

When the brain receives this information, it evaluates it and compares it to previous experiences and what the body's senses are picking up.

The brain then produces pain to help protect the body from further damage.

If something hurts, the brain's instinct will be to get the part of the body away from the source of damage.

For example, if you burn yourself on the stove, the nociceptors alert the brain to a sudden and dangerous change of body temperature.

The brain releases pain, which is the unpleasant sensation, and the reasoning portion of the brain will know to remove itself from the heat.

The brain also triggers a response to help protect and heal the afflicted area.

This response takes different forms, included increased blood flow, releasing body healing molecules, and triggering inflammation which is the body's immune response to an irritant.

The brain causes the nociceptors to become extra sensitive to inflamed areas, trying to protect them from further injury.

So if you experience pain, it's because your body is trying to help.

Sadly, there are instances when the brain sends pain signals, although there is no obvious threat to the body.

This condition and other conditions where pain doesn't go away should be discussed with a medical professional.

Overcoming Pain

If it hurts, it needs attention.

That is the main purpose of pain.

By taking necessary precautions before doing strenuous activity and applying the recommended ice and heat to injuries, instances of pain can be dramatically reduced.


Keep the right tools such as heating pads and ice compresses on hand to help your body to begin the healing process.