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Heat or Ice? Settling the Debate When It Comes to Workplace Injuries

January 16, 2019
June 21, 2023
girl putting on an ice and hot pack

Manual work comes with aches and pains. From manufacturing to agriculture, these industries have their fair share of injuries. Once an injury occurs the age-old question comes about. Heat or ice? When it comes to pain management this question comes with a mountain of confusion. Both heat and ice can assist in pain and injury recovery. Each method possessing its own strengths and weaknesses. Hot and cold application both have specific uses when it comes to addressing pain, acute injuries and chronic discomfort.

However, if these applications are used incorrectly, they can cause more harm than good. This article will help set the record straight and offer some basic guidelines on when to bring the heat and when to chill out when it comes to reducing pain and inflammation.  

Bring the Heat

When you think heat, think chronic discomfort. Stiff or tight muscles, stress, muscular fatigue, and sometimes even chronic back pain, can be managed by heat application. Heat works by increasing blood flow to the affected area, making collagen fibers more pliable and helping loosen stiffness in muscles and joints. The benefits of heat include pain relief, reduced chronic pain, increased blood flow, and reduced stiffness. Heat helps to relax and soothe muscles and the increased blood flow can aid in the recovery process. Heat wraps and hydrotherapy are two main ways of applying heat to the body. However, heat should not be used with acute injuries as this can increase inflammation, pain and even tissue damage in the specific area. It is always better to save heat for stiffness and fatigue while leaving the ice for acute injuries.

3 ways to apply heat:

  1. Moist hot towel - Moisten a towel and place in microwave for 2-3 minutes.  Place in a dry towel before using.
  2. Microwaveable Heating Pads - Just heat in a microwave and enjoy! Please pay attention to manufacturers’ warnings.
  3. Electrical heating pads- Just plug and use!  Use caution when applying. Please pay attention to manufacturers’ warnings.

Chill Out

Ice is for injuries. Cold application constricts blood flow to the injured area helping reduce swelling and tissue damage that comes with the inflammatory process. It also produces a numbing effect, so think of using ice as a drugless way to reduce pain while helping the injured area begin the recovery process. Another added benefit of ice application is that it helps to break muscle spasm. Ice packs are the most common way to apply cold to the affected area, even a bag of frozen peas is enough to do the trick. Knowing when to use cold therapy is important to ensure a speedy recovery from a recent injury or sudden onset of pain.

Ice works well for many types of injuries.  Here are 3 ways to apply ice:

  1. Bag of ice- Small ice chips in a plastic bag.  Apply for 10-20 mins.
  2. Reusable Cold Pack- Often contain gel or chemicals.  Always use a thin cloth barrier and apply up to 30 min. Make your own with a 2:1 ratio of water to rubbing alcohol.  Remove excess air, double bag, and freeze!
  3. Ice massage- Fill a foam cup with water and freeze.  Peel the cup back and rub in circular motions over painful area.  Stop if the part becomes numb.

Tips to Help You Choose

Now that hot and cold therapy have been explained a bit, a few quick tips below will ensure you choose the right treatment for your pain or injury.

Fresh injuries need no heat

Applying heat to a fresh injury will only increase blood flow to the area. This will make the injury worse as by increasing the inflammatory process. Even with acute muscle pains, avoid heat as the fresh injury needs time to reduce inflammation first.

Cold for Swelling and Bruises

Fresh bruise or swelling from an acute injury? Ice is the way to go anytime you have swelling or bruising from a recent accident. Cold will help bring down swelling and decrease blood flow to the area which is ideal.

Muscle Pain Can Get Tricky

Both hot and cold can be a friend to muscle pains but timing and circumstance are crucial in which choice is better. Acute muscle pain and muscle strain injury should receive ice – especially for at least the first 72 hours. Once the inflammation is abated you might switch to heat to promote healing and assist with remaining tightness. If you are unsure, be sure to consult your healthcare provider. Remember, heat is best used with muscle fatigue and stiffness.

Wrapping Up

Whether to use heat or ice for pain can cause some confusion. Both applications have their benefits when it comes to controlling discomfort, but they can cause more harm than good if used incorrectly. Our certified athletic trainers are experts in applying sports medicine techniques in the workplace to prevent injuries. Work-Fit makes sure your employees know if they need to bring the heat or chill out when it comes to pain management. Get in touch with us today to learn how we can help keep your team members healthy and on the job!


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