Ice vs. Heat Therapy for Soreness and Injuries

A woman icing.

Your muscles get sore from exercising. Injuries happen.

Unless you're extremely lucky, you've dealt with them both.

Maybe it's your first time in the gym after a long break. Maybe you happened to cut a corner too tight and ran your thigh into a piece of equipment (we've all done it). 

Whatever it may be, soreness and pain are inevitable. Fortunately, ice therapy and heat therapy can help.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

If you've ever started to exercise after taking some time off, you know this acronym. 

It can be a struggle to get out of bed, walk down stairs, or even brush your teeth due to aches or pains from a recent workout. This is known as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.

As you're reading this article, you're more than likely in a state of homeostasis. When you exercise, you disrupt your bodies homeostasis by stressing the system. A majority of the time, this stress is actually good for you. It allows your body to make the needed adjustments and reset the homeostasis to an elevated set point.

This is why, after consistent exercise, the soreness following a training session becomes negligible. To get to the point where our bodies can handle the stress of exercise, we sometimes have to deal with soreness along the way.

Whether it's muscle soreness or an actual injury, there are remedies that can help offset and deal with the discomfort until your body adapts and the soreness subsides. Here are some guidelines on when and how to use ice therapy, and when and how to use heat therapy. 

Ice

The use of ice can help reduce soreness by limiting inflammation. 

According to a study in the Journal of Athletic Trainingusing ice after an injury reduces inflammation by limiting blood flow to the affected area. In the same study, it was shown that applying ice also decreased discomfort when compared to the absence of ice. When the ice was combined with a menthol gel, the results were even better.

Although every situation is unique, general icing guidelines are as follows:

What to Use: Crushed ice in a plastic bag, frozen bag of vegetables, ice packs. 

Time: Best used following exercise or at the end of the day when no strenuous activity will follow.

Length: Best when done in 15- to 20-minute increments. Longer durations increase the risk of getting an ice burn.

Initial Discomfort: The first couple minutes may be uncomfortable, but within about five minutes, the area should become numb and the discomfort should be manageable.

Towel/Wrap: If you can't handle the ice straight on the skin, you can wrap the bag in a towel or T-shirt to help reduce the coldness.

Ice Bath: If you've suffered a painful injury or you're really sore following a hard workout, try filling up a bath tub (or bucket for an ankle or foot injury) with ice and water, and take a 6- to 10-minute plunge.

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About the Author

Jake Bernards

Jake Bernards is a PhD student studying Sport Physiology and Performance at East Tennessee State. As a former collegiate football player, sports and movement are a way of life for Jake. He enjoys anything outdoors, including surfing, hiking and golf. Follow Jake on Twitter.
Jake Bernards is a PhD student studying Sport Physiology and Performance at East Tennessee State. As a former collegiate football player, sports and movement are a way of life for Jake. He enjoys anything outdoors, including surfing, hiking and golf. Follow Jake on Twitter.

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