Heat vs. Ice: Best Treatment for Joint Pain

Trying to decide whether heat or ice is the best treatment for joint pain? This article will help you make the right decision.

Heat and ice packs are common recommendations for joint injury, but which is better and why? What is it about these two seemingly forms of therapy that can help joints move and feel better? 

If you want to know whether you should ice that sore knee or put a heat pack on it, this post can help you decide.

Should I use heat or ice?

There are three primary considerations you’ll want to take into account when figuring out which to use: 

  • Figure out what caused the discomfort.  (Ask yourself: Why is my joint hurting?
  • Establish the history/timeline of your joint pain.  (Ask: “When did it first start hurting and how long has it been since then?”)
  • Note how your joint physically feels and what it looks like.  (Ask: “Is my joint swollen, red, hot, stiff, etc.?”)

After asking yourself these questions, you should have a better idea of what caused the discomfort, how long it’s been hurting, and what your joint looks and feels like.

From there, you can make a better assessment as to what stage of healing your joint is in.


Why does it hurt?

From injury to overuse to a hyperactive immune system to aging, there are quite a few reasons as to why your joint could be hurting.  Knowing the answer to this question is the first step in deciding whether heat or ice could benefit.

According to the CDC, over 22 percent of the population suffers from joint discomfort. Bone and joint conditions aren’t the only conditions that lead to joint swelling, though. Our joints swell with injuries, too, like when we twist an ankle or even break a bone.

Need help in figuring out why?  Narrow down some possible and common causes of joint discomfort with the help of this article.


Timing Matters

Life experience has probably taught you that warmth and coolness feel good (or not) depending on the scenario. We can apply this to our joints: heat typically helps a stiff, spasming joint feel better and cold temperatures usually provide comfort to a swollen, hot joint.

What do we mean by “time?”

Rather than a specific time of day, think about it in terms of the duration or interval of time that you have been experiencing joint discomfort.

  • Acute:  it has suddenly occurred or is recent (usually from minutes to a couple weeks)
  • Chronic:  it’s been around for a while (from several weeks to months to years)

How can heat or ice help?

So far you’ve established why your joint hurts and for how long–you’re almost there!

For the last step, you’ll need to identify what your experiencing.

Use ice for joint care when…

  • You have acute discomfort (e.g. you’ve just injured a joint or have done so within the last week or two)
  • Your joint is visibly swollen and stiff
  • Your joint is hotter or warmer than the same joint on the other side of your body

The cooling effect of an ice pack constricts blood vessels, which leads to a lack of blood flood.  This keeps tissue from swelling more.

Swelling is something that happens almost immediately when we have an injury. When you twist your ankle, for example, it starts to swell in minutes. At this point, your goal is to control it because swelling leads to more discomfort and may damage the joint further.

Ice is part of the first aid formula for injuries, too, known as RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. In the sprained ankle example above, you would want to reach for that ice pack and apply it as soon as possible. After about 20 minutes, take it off for at least another 20 minutes before reapplying.

Anything from a cold pack to frozen vegetables to a plastic bag of ice works fine. Keep in mind that ice causes numbing, so you need to avoid things like frostbite or ice burn! Having a thin layer of protection between your skin and the cold protects it from the damage ice can do. Using a towel or pillowcase will do.


Use heat for joint care when…

  • You have chronic discomfort (e.g. it’s been nagging you for months or years at a time)
  • Your joint is stiff and feels “cold”
  • Your muscles are tense and tend to spasm

Heat, on the other hand, opens vessels up to improve blood flow to and from the inflamed area.  This essentially “loosens” up the tissue, allowing for more ease of movement.

Athletes use heat therapy before a game, for example. Like we mentioned before, heat allows more blood into the area by opening up blood vessels. Improved circulation causes the joint to become warmer and helps to decrease the risk of strains and sprains.

After a long day of work or an exercise session, heat may also be a great choice. After all, those joints can become stiff from constant use, too.

For an at-home hot pack, pour dry rice in a tube sock and tie the end.  Microwave until warm to the touch!

In conclusion…

Ice helps to decrease swelling and discomfort.  This is especially useful when joints are swollen, hot, and stiff.  In addition, the coolness of ice works to numb the area.  Ice typically is used when an injury is new or happened recently.

Heat helps to provide comfort and relax and loosen the joint.  This is beneficial when joints are stiff and need to be able to move (like before physical activity).  Heat is typically used after swelling has gone down and soreness and stiffness are still lingering.

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