Ice or Heat: Home Remedies for Pain


Should you use ice or heat on your aches and pains?

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Harvard Health Publications

How to Choose the Right Method for Your Mending

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Nothing eases everyday pains, strains, aches, and bruises like cold and heat. But which conditions respond best to heat therapy and which to cold therapy? 

As someone who spent many midlife years running in summer triathlons and who enjoys a physically demanding self-reliant rural life, I count heat and cold among my most important first-aid remedies.

Strained muscles, Achilles tendinitis, tennis elbow (I got mine from a day of tossing cordwood off a wood-splitting machine), big bruises, bumps on the head—I’ve known ‘em all. Advancing age has brought painful arthritis in knees, neck, back, elbows, wrists, thumbs, and fingers.

But when do you use heat and when to you use cold? Let’s review which is best—and learn how to make an easy cold pack and heat pack, too.

When to Ice (Cold Therapy)

Use cold to treat an acute injury with swelling—sprains, bumps, bruises, tendinitis. Cold numbs the nerves and constricts the blood vessels, reducing swelling and tissue breakdown and easing pain. (It also works for temporarily reducing under-eye puffiness.)

→ Get more natural remedies for bruises.

The time-honored cold pack for a sprain or a fresh, swollen bruise is a bag of frozen corn or peas. The bag conforms to the injured part and treats the injury—then you eat the thawed vegetables for supper.

In winter, I’ve stuffed a plastic bag with snow. I’ve also frozen water in a paper cup, torn back the top of the cup, and massaged the injured part with the ice. Slow, circular massaging movements help to prevent frostbite that can occur from continuous application.

You can make your own reusable cold packs in a jiffy: Just fill a long, 100 percent cotton sock with rice, small beans, flax seed, dried corn kernels, or other hard seed or grain produce, leaving enough space to tie a knot. Keep a couple on hand in the freezer.

Endurance athletes sometimes hasten recovery by immersing their entire bodies in an ice bath.

When to Use Heat Therapy

Heat is for more chronic, long-lasting aches and pains.

Nothing soothes muscle tension or arthritis like a heat pack. Gentle heat opens blood vessels to improve blood supply to an area and helps to stretch tight muscles.

Don’t use heat (or provide it to someone else) on open/recent wounds or swollen areas. Before treating with heat, consult a health professional if you have a skin condition, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or a vascular disease.

For a DIY heat back, fill a cotton sock with seeds. Toss it into the microwave for about 2 minutes or into the oven until it’s warm to the touch.

If you’re handy with a sewing machine, you can make a cover of any size and shape to fill with seeds. A zippered opening will allow you to remove the seeds and wash the cover.

I have a large, seed-filled “cape” that drapes over my shoulders, upper back, and chest, with a short collar that comes up around my neck. Mmmm! Heavenly heat after a long day hunched over a computer or splitting wood.

Dry, Irritated Tired Eyes

A warm, moist compress also helps to ease dry, irritated, tired eyes at the end of the day. Massage gently downward over the lids to stimulate the production of both tears and the oils that help to prevent tear evaporation.

Using a Cold or Heat Pack

If you plan to leave either a cold pack or a hot pack in place, keep a piece of flannel or a thin towel between you and the pack to protect your skin from injury. Medical professionals recommend leaving either a cold or a hot pack in place for 10 to 15 minutes, then removing it and waiting half an hour before reapplying.

→ Get more tips on first aid essentials for all your aches and pains.

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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