Heat Or Ice – Which is Better For Sore Muscles?

guy-squatting-heat-or-ice-which-is-better-for-leg-day-pain-doms-sore muscles heat or ice

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Pushing yourself a bit too hard trying to beat your own record or scoring the winning goal can cause injury. Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage (EIMD) and Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) to be exact. There’s nothing worse than an inflamed or stiff muscle to cramp your style!

So should you use a heat or an ice pack? This is a question that has bamboozled many for years, athletes and doctors alike. There is still confusion about what the benefits and drawbacks of each treatment are.

While you can use both for a whole range of ailments such as osteoarthritis, tendonitis, strains, sprains, and neck or back pain, their effects are different and can be harmful if misused.


Heat or Ice – How They Both Work

Heat therapy, or thermotherapy, involves placing a heat source on the site of pain or injury. The heat dilates your blood vessels, promoting blood flow to the target area and eliminating lactic acid waste. The heat helps to relax and un-stiffen tight or sore muscles, as well as reduce chronic pain in deep tissues. Blood flow and circulation increases, speeding up the recovery process and bringing more nutrients and oxygen to the muscles.
Make sure the heat is neither excessive or in direct contact with the skin as this can cause tissue damage and add insult to injury. Since heat increases circulation, it’s also a bad idea to use it on inflamed or broken skin as this can cause swelling and bleeding, which you probably dont want,

A hot water bottle, compress, microwaveable pad, capsicum wrap or a warm bath are all effective in improving blood circulation. Moist heat, such as a damp compress or a warm bath will act faster than dry heat and can be left in place for up to two hours.

You can make warm compresses easily with a small towel soaked in hot water. However, experts recommend leaving the heat on for no longer than twenty minutes, up to three times a day.


Cold therapy, or cryotherapy, does the exact opposite. The cold constricts blood vessels, meaning a decrease in blood flow and slows down pain messages between the tissue and the brain. Meaning reduced inflammation, swelling, tissue damage, and pain, acting as a local anaesthetic. It’s perfect for calming down damaged superficial tissue and subduing the pain.

Apply your cryotherapy with a cold water bottle, freezable pad, cold compress, ice-cube massage or cold bath. You can also make cold compresses using a small towel soaked in cold water. Much like thermotherapy, do not let the cold touch your skin for more than twenty minutes at a time, as this can cause tissue damage. Do this every four-to-six hours.

There are a few caveats on the use of cryotherapy to treat your muscles. Never put the cold source directly against the skin, as this could cause tissue damage. Ice cube massage is safe because the cold source is never on the same spot for long. Since cold temperatures reduce blood flow, cryotherapy shouldn’t be used on an open wound. While it might reduce bleeding, it could cause further tissue damage and prevent healing or recovery. Cold therapy can also induce cramping, so if you already feel at risk of muscle spasms, don’t add a cold source.

But which is best?

Given the above information, what is best for your muscles? This depends on what your exact ailment is. In case of a fresh injury, with a high level of inflammation and pain, cryotherapy will reduce swelling and pain, decreasing chances of EIMD and DOMS. For older injuries, chronic pain or stiffness, thermotherapy will improve blood circulation, reduce stiffness and promote recovery.
Moist heat especially, applied over a prolonged period (no more than two hours), has the time to impact deeper tissues, helping prevent or reduce DOMS. In the case of muscle injuries such as strains, or any obvious trauma suffered during intense effort resulting in sudden severe pain, it’s a good idea to treat the muscle with ice for the first few days, to deal with any pain and swelling, before switching to heat to deal with any aches or stiffness and support healing.

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