Heat vs. Ice

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I am asked a lot about when it is appropriate to use heat vs. ice as a part of body maintenance and injury healing. It seems like it should be simple, but it isn’t always straightforward.


Most often used for tight muscles. Heat draws blood into the area and helps the tissues lengthen and soften. For example, if your traps are… ahem.. a little tight from the kettlebell swings a couple of days ago… this is a great time to put heat on them. It’s also a good idea to stretch AFTER having a heat pack on an area or after having a hot bath. Heat is great on Trigger Points and can be used on muscle spasms (particularly those arising from a metabolic issue (e.g. electrolyte issue) as opposed to spasm from an injury. Heat should not be used on acute injuries or if there is any hint of inflammation. Often when people hurt their backs they put heat on it because it initially feels good, but if there is inflammation present this can cause more harm. It very much depends on what the cause of the back pain is. Ask someone who knows if you are not sure. When using heat, 20 minutes of application at a time direct to an area is a good guideline. Good sources of heat are: bath, microwavable heat pack (although Jesse would recommend that you check that you aren’t allergic to it’s contents before you wrap it around your neck and snuggle into bed with it for the night), and my personal favourite… a plug in Thermaphore… ranging in price from $70-$120 and well worth every penny.

Krista recommends her personal favourite…the snuggy.


Ice is for injury and inflammation. If an injury occurs, the sooner you can get ice on the area the better. Immediately is best case scenario. Be careful not to burn the area with ice. Wrapping it is a good idea and limiting the application to roughly 10 minutes is a good idea unless it is a gel pack that warms up quickly. If you have an injury the more times a day you can ice the better. Just make sure that the area returns to normal temperature in between application of the cold source. Ice is also great for extreme microtearing in a muscle even when “injury” isn’t present (microtearing is a normal part of the muscle building process in a workout. However, sometimes it is… extreme). A good example of this is sticking your legs in the frigid river after a long distance bike or running race, icing your quads after the 400m walking lunge, or your triceps after Cindy or Angie; basically any time you anticipate the worst soreness of your life (a little dramatic but you know what I mean). But you have to get to it quickly. If you wait a day or so you are starting to get into the timeframe where heat should be used. Great sources of cold are: cold gel packs, frozen peas, bathtub full of cold water and some icecubes, and frozen bison ribs (very form fitting). If you are going to put ice on something, don’t stretch after. Stretching a cold area is a bad idea. Trigger points also don’t like ice, it aggravates them. This is why determining the source of discomfort is important.


Using heat and cold together is very powerful. Heat draws blood into and area and ice shunts it out. This stimulates the circulatory system which draws nutrients into an area faster and gets rid of waste products faster. It can be done in a number of ways. A simple example of a full body contrast is going from the hot tub to the pool (or into the snow to make a snow angel). It can also be done in the shower which in my opinion is very brave. Contrasts can also be done for the feet or arms. We learned about contrasts in our hydrotherapy class at Massage Therapy school and the teachers encouraged us to do contrast arm baths regularly. I did them a lot when I started working as an RMT whenever my forearms felt tight and it made a HUGE difference. Tight forearms from pullups and deads anyone??? The best way of doing this one is to use both kitchen sinks and fill one with hot and one with cold. Same thing can be done with feet in the bathtub and a rubbermaid next to it.
The general plan for all contrasts is to do: 3 minutes in hot, then 30-60 seconds of cold, repeat 3 times. Always start with hot and end with cold. The greater the temperature differential, the stronger the response. If you are suspect that there may be a little bit of inflammation, best to keep the “hot” not too hot and spend a little more time in the cold. Absolutely end with cold.

I hope this helps, if you have any questions please ask.


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