Is Heat or Cold Better for Soft Tissue Damage?

Breeze Academy January 13, 2023
Red gingham ice pack on a person's ankle

When faced with soft tissue injuries, one of the first things that people tend to do is apply heat or cold therapy to relieve pain and discomfort. But, is one better than the other, and does it even work? In this article, we explore the benefits of ice and heat therapy, and when it is best to use them.

So, is heat or cold better for soft tissue damage? Cold (ice therapy) is better for soft tissue damage than heat as heat could cause conditions to become worse. Ice therapy has healing properties such as pain relief, reducing swelling and inflammation, however, heat has the potential to make inflammation worse, delaying healing.

Read on to learn more about when to use heat or ice therapy, and the various conditions it can help with.

Is Ice or Heat Better? 

It can sometimes be difficult to know when to apply ice or heat to an injury. On the one hand, heat can offer relatively immediate relief and comfort from aches and pains but, on the other hand, ice has healing properties such as reducing swelling and inflammation. 

As a general rule of thumb, ice is best used on acute injuries, pain, inflammation and swelling, whereas heat is best used on muscle pain and stiffness

Ice Therapy

Ice therapy is better for soft tissue damage as this typically involves inflammation and swelling; the ice will help to relieve pain by numbing the area, whilst working to reduce any inflammation and swelling as a result of reduced circulation. Heat, on the other hand, could make the inflammation worse by improving circulation and blood flow around the affected area.

Ice therapy can be applied in a number of ways, some more convenient than others:

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy is best used for muscle pain and joint stiffness. Heat therapy works by improving circulation as a result of increasing the temperature of the affected area. This helps to soothe aches and pains, increase muscle flexibility and reduce stiffness.

Typically, heat therapy is applied via dry heat (heat packs, saunas) or via moist heat (steamed towels, moist heat packs, baths); both are easy to apply, however, some think that moist heat is more effective as it delivers the same results in less time. 

When to Use Heat or Ice Therapy

In the previous section, we went over the basic principles of ice and heat therapy and their best applications, but to make things a little bit clearer, we’ve provided advice on ice or heat therapy for a range of common conditions below to increase the effectiveness of treatment. 

Ice or Heat for Back Pain

Depending on the cause of back pain, there is a significant risk that applying heat to the area could cause any inflammation to become worse, resulting in greater pain. It is therefore recommended to use ice therapy for back pain, particularly lower back pain. 

Heat or Ice on Pulled Muscles

For pulled muscles, strains and sprains, ice therapy is advised over heat therapy to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. However, for general muscle aches or DOMS, heat therapy is an appropriate treatment to ease discomfort. 

Ice or Heat for Shoulder and Neck Pain

It is recommended to treat injured shoulders and necks with ice for 10-20 minutes sessions over a few days to reduce swelling. After this time, heat therapy can be used to relieve soreness.

Ice or Heat for Tendonitis

The NHS recommends applying an ice pack on the affected tendon for up to 20  minutes every 2 to 3 hours. It is also recommended to avoid moving the tendon for 2 to 3 days and to support the tendon by wrapping an elastic bandage around the area or by using a soft brace.

Does Heat Make Inflammation Worse?

Heat can make inflammation worse; heat causes small blood vessels to open which can cause inflammation (or make it worse), rather than relieving it. In turn, this can delay healing. You may receive short-term pain relief by using heat packs, but in the long run, you may be in pain for a longer period of time than if you used ice therapy.

How Can I Speed Up Soft Tissue Damage?

Ice or heat therapy isn’t the only way to relieve and treat soft tissue damage; there is a wide range of other therapies available that may have a positive impact on injuries, particularly when combined with ice or heat therapy. These include;

Massage Therapy

Massage Therapy, in particular Sports Massage Therapy, is known for being an effective method of treating soft tissue damage. In fact, Sports Massage Therapy may be able to heal some conditions faster than simply resting. 

Learn more about how Sports Massage Therapy can positively impact soft tissue damage in our blogs Can Sports Massage Help Tennis Elbow? and What is Sports Massage Good For?

Acupuncture and Dry Needling

Studies have reported that Acupuncture may offer long-term benefits for soft tissue damage, including pain management and, in some cases, it can offer a complete resolution to the condition. Acupuncture benefits the healing of soft tissue damage by improving circulation, stimulating the release of endorphins and other natural painkillers, reducing inflammation, and reducing the risk of recurrence. 

Learn more about Acupuncture and soft tissue damage in our blog Is Acupuncture Good for Soft Tissue Damage? Where we go into more detail about how it works, the different conditions it can help with, and the average recovery time. 

Final Thoughts

As a rule of thumb, ice therapy is better for acute injuries, pain, inflammation and swelling. Heat therapy, on the other hand, is best used for muscle pain and stiffness. If you’re unsure which therapy is most suitable for your condition, it is recommended to use ice therapy as using heat on inflammation could make it worse and delay healing.

There is also a range of other therapies that work well in conjunction with ice and heat therapy to treat soft tissue damage, including Massage Therapy and Acupuncture. At Breeze Academy, we offer a number of Acupuncture and Dry Needling courses and Sports Massage courses across the UK that provide you with everything you need to safely and effectively deliver treatments to your clients. Learn more online today or get in touch for more information.

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