Ice Packs vs. Warm Compresses for Pain

It can sometimes be confusing whether to use heat or cold when treating sore muscles or an injury. But keep these facts in mind.


  • Brings more blood to the area where it is applied.

  • Reduces joint stiffness and muscle spasm, which makes it useful when muscles are tight.

  • Should not be used for the first 48 hours after an injury.

Types of warm packs or pads

Warm towel

  1. Dampen a towel with warm (not scalding) water.

  2. Put it on the affected area to ease muscle spasm.

Heating pad

Be sure to protect any type of heating pad device from coming in direct contact with the skin. Take safety steps to prevent burns. This is even more important if you have nerve damage, such as from diabetes or other health problems.

When muscles work, chemical byproducts are made that need to be removed. When exercise is very intense, there may not be enough blood flow to remove all the chemicals. It's the buildup of chemicals (for instance, lactic acid) that causes muscle ache. The blood supply helps remove these chemicals. So use heat to help sore muscles after exercise.


  • Eases pain by numbing the affected area.

  • Reduces swelling and inflammation.

  • Reduces bleeding.

Types of cold packs

Ice towel

  1. Dampen a towel with cold water.

  2. Fold it and place it in a plastic, sealable bag.

  3. Place the bag in the freezer for 15 minutes.

  4. Remove it from the freezer and place it on the affected area.

Ice pack or cold compress

  1. Put ice in a plastic, sealable bag.

  2. Fill it partially with water.

  3. Seal the bag, squeezing the air out of it.

  4. Wrap the bag in a damp towel and put it on the affected area. Do not apply ice directly to the skin.

When an injury or inflammation (such as tendonitis or bursitis) occurs, tissues are damaged. Cold numbs the affected area, which can reduce pain and tenderness. Cold can also reduce swelling and inflammation.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: Thomas N Joseph MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2023
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