How To Move Without Pain

Heat or Ice - Which should you use when your joints hurt?

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

This article takes 6 minutes to read

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Whether an injury or a chronic inflammation is causing your joint pain, there is a lot of advice out there on what to do about your pain and how to manage it at home.
Using heat or ice to reduce joint pain is an easy at home fix – but which should you choose?

Learn why your joints hurt so you know what to do about it

This question is extremely common and one I hear every day when I am in the clinic treating patients. This question would be easier for people to answer for themselves, if they understand why their bodies hurt. Understanding what hurts and why it hurts is instrumental to knowing if heat or ice would be better.  The choice to use heat or ice depends on the source of the pain.

Learn more about your joint health by discovering what inflames you and what makes you stronger

Pain Generators:

  • Arthritic joints
  • Overused muscles (strained back muscles from repeated lifting)
  • Sprained joints (twisted an ankle)
  • Systemic inflammation: RA, fibromyalgia, MS
  • Injury/Surgery

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There are some basics when deciding whether to use heat or ice on a painful area. 
Heat and ice have different effects on the tissues in our bodies. Heat increases blood flow to the affected area. Blood flow increases tissue healing, causing muscle aches to ease, spasms to release.
Heat is best for joint pains not caused by inflammation, like osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis when not in a flare up.
Heat can be used to sooth the joints, relieve stiffness and ease muscle soreness, especially after a long day driving, at the desk or joint pain from an arthritic knee – heat is better. 

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Cold restricts blood flow, reducing inflammation and swelling and can numb the pain of the affected area. 
Cold reduces inflammation and swelling, joint pain from overuse or acute injury. 
So if you have twisted an ankle or over used a muscle (helping friends move, putting away decorations or re-organizing your kitchen) then use ice – reduce the swelling, the pain and temperature of the joint.

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But here is the thing, these are not steadfast rules for using heat versus ice.

If you have been in pain for a while, you have probably tried heat and/or ice and know that they don’t respond well or don’t like ice.

And that’s ok – use the one that works best for you, your joints and body. When if you still aren’t sure – call your local physical therapist #PTfirst

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ice pack on knee for pain

*Disclaimer: All information in this article is intended for instruction and informational purposes. The author(s) are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result.  This info is used to supplement not replace any advice you were provided from your doctor or another medical health professional.  No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied with this article.