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Ice vs. Warm Compresses For Pain: When to Use Them

Published on 23rd July 2020
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Ice vs. Warm Compresses For Pain: When to Use Them
  1. What is a warm compress?
  2. What is a cold compress?
  3. Follow the Guidelines
ice vs warm compresses for pain

Should you apply a warm vs. cold compress to an area on the body for pain? It depends because cold and warmth produce two different results. Though both can reduce pain in joints and tissues, ice packs decrease blood flow, and warm compresses increase it. Cold compresses are useful for decreasing inflammation, while warm compresses are good for conditions like stiff tendons or relieving pain in the lower back.

What is a warm compress?

It is simply something that can be used to apply heat to a spot on the body. A warm compress can be moist or dry. A warm compress encourages blood flow to a particular area by dilating blood vessels in the area where heat is applied. The increased blood circulation to tissues:

  • Eases muscle and tendon soreness.
  • Accelerates the healing process by delivering nutrients to the area
  • Loosens tight muscles.

Types of warm packs

A warm compress can be purchased or made at home with items on hand. They include:

  • Electric heating pad
  • Washcloth soaked in hot water and excess water wrung out
  • Gel pack that can be heated in the microwave
  • Hot water bottle
  • Heat wrap
  • Heating pad
warm compresses for pain

When to use a warm compress

Warm compresses are used for a variety of purposes. They include

  • Eye problems 
  • Muscle spasms and aches
  • Muscle injury
  • Neck stiffness
  • Upper and lower back pain
  • Stiff, tender or swollen joints
  • Tension headaches
  • Sinus congestion
  • Earache due to infection
  • Toothache
  • Menstrual cramps

People apply a hot compress after an injury, but applying heat before strenuous activity can relax muscles and ligaments to minimize the chance of aggravating a chronic injury or incurring muscle soreness. Apply the warm compress several times a day for best results.

Some of the medical conditions treated with the application of warm compresses include osteoarthritis, back muscle strain, tendonitis, fibromyalgia, boils and headaches. One of the benefits of a warm compress used every couple of hours is that heat can penetrate to the underlying muscles.

What is a cold compress? 

When a cold compress is applied, the blood vessels contract which reduces localized inflammation and swelling. Cold temperatures also numb injured tissues, reducing pain. A cold compress should be applied immediately after an injury or when a joint becomes inflamed.

Types of cold packs

Like the warm compress, you can purchase a cold compress or make a cold compress at home. They include:

  • Placing cubed ice in a plastic bag and wrap in a washcloth
  • Wrapping a bag of frozen vegetables (peas work well) in a washcloth
  • Using an instant chemical cold pack that activates by squeezing the pack
  • Using a gel pack that is frozen in the freezer
cold compress cold pack

When to use a cold compress?

How do you know when to use a cold compress instead of a warm one? The first guideline is the cause of the pain. A cold compress for swelling brings relief when applied right away to an injury like an ankle sprain. Some of the conditions that can benefit from cold treatment include the following:

Unlike the warm compress, ice packs should not be used right before vigorously exercising or participating in sports.

Follow the Guidelines

There are a few guidelines to keep in mind. One is to only apply a cold or warm compress for a maximum of 20 minutes. Another guideline is to be careful to not damage the skin from a compress that is too hot or too cold. The skin should look pink and not red or white. The skin should be allowed to reach its normal temperature before reapplying a cold or hot compress. Finally, only use compresses on areas where the skin is not broken. If the compress does not bring pain relief, see a doctor for evaluation.

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