Heat vs. Ice: What’s Better For Sore Muscles?

To ice or to heat — that’s the question!

By: Lexy Parsons

We’ve all experienced the unsavory aches and pains that come with an injury, or that “So. Sore. I can’t walk feeling” that kicks in 24-72 hours after a grueling workout — thanks to DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Causation aside, inflamed, overworked, and overused muscles call for a little extra TLC. Ok, so what recovery modality should I reach for? In terms of treating pain with hot and cold, is heat or ice better for sore muscles? Good questions! While some advocate for heat therapy, others swear by its chilling cousin, cold therapy. 

As with most things, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. The best recovery modality for sore muscles will depend on a few things — is your injury acute or chronic? Is there swelling or inflammation? These are the types of questions you want to start asking yourself. The severity and location of your muscle soreness, and even your lifestyle (i.e. how active you are or how often you can dedicate to recovery), play a large part in the recovery process! 

So, the next time you find yourself glued to the couch thanks to overly sore muscles, refer back here for the ultimate muscle soreness recovery tips. We’re breaking down the recovery process with all you need to know!

RELATED: 9 Tips to Reduce Muscle Soreness Faster

Heat Therapy VS Cold Therapy: What’s The Difference?

Heat Therapy for Muscle Soreness

Heat therapy is a recovery modality that stimulates the healing process by encouraging fresh blood flow to the area of injury or soreness. When blood vessels dilate and send nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood, you may experience symptoms such as a decrease in tension, pain, or soreness, and even an increased range of motion. 

Cold Therapy for Muscle Soreness

Cold therapy, on the other hand, works by reducing inflammation to the area of injury or soreness and thus reducing blood flow to muscles. Also known as ice therapy or cryotherapy, cold therapy is commonly used to relieve pain and soothe muscle soreness and inflammation soon after the onset of soreness.

Benefits of Heat Therapy 

From saunas to heating pads, heat therapy is beneficial in healing sore muscles for many reasons! 

Heat therapy may help to:

  • Relax and soothe sore muscles 
  • Improve circulation and blood flow
  • Increase muscle flexibility 
  • Eliminate the build-up of lactic acid
  • Ease discomfort
  • Relieve minor stiffness and tension

When & How to Use Heat Therapy 

When to Use Heat Therapy 

Heat therapy is beneficial for chronic muscle soreness, pain, or injuries, where it can help relax muscles and soothe muscle fibers. If you experience ongoing muscle soreness or have a dull, achy pain you just can’t seem to soothe, this treatment may be for you! 

Heat therapy should be avoided with any of the following conditions

  • Diabetes
  • Dermatitis or other superficial skin issues
  • Vascular diseases
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Multiple sclerosis 

How to Use Heat Therapy

If you’ve ever had a heat therapy treatment, then you know how calming and therapeutic it feels. Lucky for you, heat therapy should be applied longer than cold therapy (so you can rejoice in the soothing heat that much longer). For larger areas of more intense muscle soreness, heat therapy can be applied between 30 minutes to 2 hours. For smaller areas with less pain or soreness, 15 to 20 minutes will suffice!

Types of heat therapy include:

  • Heated gel packs
  • Hot water compress
  • Heating pads
  • Heated wraps
  • Hot baths (such as Epsom salt baths)
  • Saunas 

Benefits of Cold Therapy 

The benefits of cold therapy include:

  • Temporary reduction in swelling
  • Reduced inflammation and redness
  • Acute pain relief
  • Improved recovery time (and thus improved subsequent exercise performance!)

When & How to Use Cold Therapy

We’re not saying you need to submerge yourself in an ice bath for 5 minutes, but if you’re experiencing these symptoms, consider giving cold therapy a try.

When to Use Cold Therapy

Cold therapy is best for early-onset, acute injuries. For best results, it should be applied within the first 48 hours of onset! So if you feel muscle soreness coming on, the sooner you get chilly, the better! 

Cold therapy should be avoided if you have chronic muscle soreness, stiff muscles or joints, sensory or nerve issues that impair pain receptors or experience poor circulation. 

How to Use Cold Therapy

For an at-home cold therapy treatment, apply an ice pack, ice bath, or cold compress onto the localized area immediately after symptoms of soreness arise. If you’re applying an ice pack,  wrap your cold compress in a cloth to avoid direct contact with the skin and prevent irritation. 

Cold therapy should be administered in short increments, with no more than 15-minute sessions. Depending on the severity of your symptoms or muscle soreness, you may find relief with multiple treatments a day (just keep the sessions between 5 and 15 minutes). 

For soreness, sprains, or strains that are minor, the R.I.C.E (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) method may be beneficial. This method involves icing for 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours during the first 24-48 hours after injury.

Types of cold therapy include:

  • Frozen ice or gel packs
  • Ice compression wraps
  • Ice baths
  • Gel treatments that elicit an “icy” cooling effect
  • Cryotherapy chambers 

The Hot & Cold Secrets to Soothing Sore Muscles 

Now that you know how to use heat and cold therapy for muscle soreness, head into your next workout, recovered and ready to crush your goals. And, just so you know, these tips can help prevent muscle soreness from occurring, too! 

Along with stretching, active recovery modalities, and staying mobile, incorporating these recovery methods into your fitness routine can help you stay ahead of the game and keep those muscles soothed and agile.