Bring The Heat Or Keep It Cool—The Ultimate Guide To Pain Relief

Workouts can be fun, but sore muscles or sprains are not. But do you know when to use a warm compress, and when to reach for a cold one? Read on to boost your self-care game by getting all the gains without the pain.

By Sahajiya Halder
25 Oct 2021

Maybe it’s been a long, tiring day, and you have a headache brought on by stress that is sapping all of your remaining energy. Or maybe it is the pesky period cramps. While popping a pill might seem to be a tempting way to ease and manage pain, there might be a better alternative—hot compress or cold compress. A review published in Physical Therapy in Sport showed that the application of cold and heat therapy within an hour of exercising could effectively reduce the degree of pain in delayed onset muscle soreness. Both heat and cold can bring pain relief, but they work in different ways. Knowing when to opt for which can help you make your self-care routine much more effective and relaxing.
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Ice, Ice, Baby
Cold restricts blood flow, so cold compresses can be useful for when you want a numbing effect. A cold compress may help to reduce swelling and inflammation. Go for a cold compress when:

  • You have a sprain, such as an ankle sprain, or have pulled a muscle.
  • You have a migraine.
  • Your eyes are swollen and puffy or aching.
  • You have an inflamed pimple.
  • You have a fever.


How to make a cold compress: Besides using ice packs, you can also make a cold compress at home. Simply dampen a towel and freeze it, or put some ice in a clean plastic bag and wrap it in a cloth, to use as a cold compress. If your calf muscles are feeling tight, grab a cold water bottle from the fridge to roll on your calves for an easy fix.


Things to remember: Be careful not to use a cold compress on the same area for too long (more than 10 to 20 minutes at a time), and refrain from directly putting ice on your skin as the extreme temperature can constrict your blood vessels and cause damage. A common misconception is that icing a burn can be helpful, but putting ice (or ice cold water) on a burn can actually damage your tissue further because it restricts blood flow. Consult a doctor if the pain and associated symptoms of a seemingly minor injury persist beyond 48 hours in spite of icing.


Some Like It Hot
Heat, on the other hand, works by increasing blood flow. This increased circulation speeds up the healing process and alleviates pain. Use a warm compress if:

  • You have sore muscles.
  • You have menstrual cramps.
  • Your sinuses are congested.
  • You have a tension headache.
  • You have a stye or dry and itchy eyes.
  • You have a deep pimple with no head.
  • You have an ear infection.


How to make a warm compress: Simply soak a towel in warm water for a moist warm compress, or heat up a sock full of uncooked rice for a short while for a dry warm compress. A bottle of hot water can also do the trick.


Things to remember: Make sure that your warm compress is not scaldingly hot, and is at an appropriate temperature so as to not harm your skin. Do not use it for too long. Remember that ice is generally better in the first 48 hours of an injury (in order to bring down swelling and inflammation) as heat may increase the risk of bleeding.


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