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Should You Use Heat Or Ice For Sore & Injured Muscles?

Most of us have been there (maybe not if you’re lucky), on the field or in the gym. Maybe you went a bit too deep on your squat or overextended your arm throwing one too many balls. Don’t worry though, injuries happen to the best of us and of course it will not stop us from getting back out there to recoup the lost time we missed healing.

The faster we can heal from these injuries the better, no doubt about that. When it comes to price, nothing beats a good cold compress or heat pad to help get us back to training and playing again.

While icing and heating are both very common practices, what’s less common is knowing what situations to do each, as well as when it can also be harmful to do one or the other at the wrong time. Beyond injuries, it is important to understand why you shouldn’t ice or heat muscles just because they are sore, not hurt.

In this article we will be discussing all these topics and hopefully you will learn something new!

When Should Muscles And Joints Be Heated?

Taking a steamy shower or getting a microwavable/electric heating pad will always help boost the spirits, but what is it actually doing for your injured muscles and joints?

Put simply, applying heat stimulates the blood vessels and increases blood flow to the heated area. This increased blood flow will help with recovery and relax sore or tense muscles and joints. Heating is great for chronically tight muscles, whether it be back pain, joint pain, or an existing muscle injury that gets tight easily. The best way to use heat is to apply it on the affected area (around 90-100°F/32-38°C) for about 20 minutes maximum, to be repeated 3-5 times a day.

There are times when heating will harm an injury though, which is important to keep in mind. Fresh injuries (under 24-48 hours) should not be heated as the inflammation will only cause more swelling and hamper recovery time. It is only when the initial swelling of an injury has subsided that heat can be applied to loosen it up. Another time when to not use heat is when your body is already heated up, such as after a workout, even if you are trying to heal a long-term injury.

topless man rubbing his hands together

When To Ice Muscles And Joints

Icing muscles and joints usually apply to the opposite situation as heating, meaning it should come first in the life cycle of an injury. Usually the first 24-48 hours of an injury when it is still inflamed, ice can be used to numb the muscle and slow circulation to lower inflammation and pain. This is very useful for sprains and pulled muscles. You simply apply the ice in the same way as heat, for 20 minutes at a time and taken off for the same amount of time to be repeated 3-5 times a day.

It is important to not put ice on the skin directly, as it could cause frostbite. Wrapping the ice pack or bag of frozen peas in a cloth or piece of clothing at the least will prevent this.

Again like the opposite of heat therapy, you do not want to ice chronic muscle and joint pain. After the initial 48 hours is over and the swelling/inflammation has gone down, cold will only make the injury worse since the muscle will contract and tighten more when it should be heated and loosened up. Ice should not be applied when you are cold either (such as before a workout), as it will only endanger you of further injuring yourself.

What About Exercise-Induced Muscle Soreness?

This is something we see often in movies or online. After a big game or gym session, professional athletes will lay in a tub full of ice or go to a futuristic chamber meant to cool their bodies down. Should we all be using this strategy to prevent DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and help us recover from our workouts and games faster?

Short answer, it depends. Like always this depends on your situation. After a game, when you will need to play again a week later or less and be at 100%, it will definitely be beneficial to ice your sore muscles to increase recovery. On the other hand if you are coming back from the gym or any kind of training session with the intent of building muscle, strength or endurance, this recommendation will change. Inflammation due to muscle micro tears is actually beneficial for getting bigger and stronger, meaning playing and training through the soreness instead of getting rid of this type of inflammation might actually be the best option.

woman in gym clothing stretching on the floor

Take Home Message

Heating and icing injuries have been an important part of the recovery process for decades, from amateur to professional leagues. Knowing when to do each is extremely important though as to not make an injury worse.

Put simply, ice new (acute) injuries when your body is warm for the first 24-48 hours to lessen the swelling and reduce inflammation. On the flip side, you want to heat older (chronic) injuries when cold to increase blood flow and loosen up the tight muscle/joint. Finally, you should ice your entire body after a game when your main focus is to recover completely before your next game, but skipping the ice bath might be better for trying to grow stronger and bigger after a workout session.

This concludes the article, and I hope you learned something new!

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Billy Galipeault

Billy Galipeault

Writer and expert

Billy is passionate about all things fitness and nutrition, with an emphasis on muscle and strength building. He's currently serving active duty in the air force, while building his body muscle by muscle in his free time.

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