Hot or Cold for Muscle and Joint Pain?

ice pack or heat therapy for muscle pain

If your weekend warrior activities have your joints and muscles aching or you twisted your ankle in a fall, do you grab an ice pack or a heating pad?

OASIS Medical and Wellness Group recommends posting these tips inside your medicine cabinet or first aid kit so you’ll always know which strategy is best to alleviate minor aches and pains.


Heat therapy induces vasodilation: drawing blood into the target tissues. Increased blood flow delivers needed oxygen and nutrients and removes cell wastes. The warmth decreases muscle spasm, relaxes tense muscles, relieves pain, and can increase range of motion.

  • Apply heat prior to physical activity, to stimulate blood flow & warm-up muscles to help prevent injuries during exercise.
  • Sore, stiff or tight muscles loosen up and relax with heat. A dip in the hot tub, a steamy shower or a heating pad provides relief after strenuous workouts and activities.
  • Arthritis joint pain lessens with heat.
  • Heat is helpful for increasing range of motion.
  • Introduce heat at least 24 hours after an injury, once swelling/bleeding has subsided. Since heat stimulates blood flow, it will actually worsen any swelling or bleeding if applied too soon. Stimulating blood flow to injured areas once swelling has gone down promotes healing & speeds recovery of damaged tissue.


Cold therapy produces vasoconstriction, which slows circulation reducing inflammation, muscle spasm, and pain.

  • Apply ice immediately after an injury or physical trauma (the sooner the better) to constrict blood flow & slow bleeding, swelling and bruising. Use cold packs during the first 24 hours following an injury when there is evidence of swelling and/or bleeding.
  • Ice therapy reduces pain & muscle spasm.
  • Cold decreases the metabolic rate of cells, which limits the risk of cell death after an injury and helps prevent long-term damage.
  • Even if you don’t have an injury, applying ice after any physical activity lessens wear & tear muscles and joints.
  • Cold cools burning arthritis pain
  • Ease hot, red and irritated joints with cold therapy

Safety tips:

  • Use a barrier, such as a towel, between the heat/cold pack and the skin to prevent skin and nerve damage.
  • Don’t apply heat to skin that is cut or injured in any way.
  • Never apply heat or cold for longer than 20 minutes at a time.
  • Avoid cold therapy if you have circulatory problems.
  • If you notice your skin becoming numb, blistered, bright red, blotchy, too hot or too cold remove the heat/cold source immediately.
  • For people with diabetes or certain conditions where they are not able to accurately feel hot or cold, it is especially important to monitor the temperature and length of time.


For major injuries or severe pain that persists, seek professional medical attention.