Heating Pads and Ice Packs - Which Are Right for You?

Ever wonder when to use ice vs heat on that sore joint? Keep reading to learn more about heating and icing options.

If you struggle with joint pain, having at-home pain relief remedies can make a huge difference in your comfort and quality of life. But, many of us don't want to rely exclusively on over-the-counter or prescription medications in order to feel better. Fortunately, you can ask your doctor about the following heat or cold therapies to help manage some of your symptoms.

Need some inspiration? These are some heating pads and ice packs to use, based on your injury or illness:

Large cold packs and heating pads

Large cold packs and heating pads are great to use on large areas of the body, such as your back and thighs. The larger surface area covers more of the desired treatment area. Save your smaller packs for smaller areas of the body, such as the wrist or knee.

Long heat and cold packs

Longer-shaped heat and cold packs are ideal for the neck and shoulders. Many are slightly weighted to help avoid sliding off the target treatment area.

Heat and cold packs with straps

Shoulder pain, hip pain, and knee pain are common, but it's not always easy to position an ice pack or heating pad over these joints. To ensure your heat or cold therapy stays put, a cold pack or heating pad that comes with straps can help. This allows you to secure the pad around your affected joint and keep it snug. Many of these strapped options are specially designed to fit the contours of the knee or shoulder, too.

As a bonus, the added compression from the straps can enhance the soothing and healing effects, especially when using cold therapy.1

Round pads

Many people find that round ice packs or heating pads are great for areas of the body like the knees, wrist, and foot or ankle.

Frozen ice cups

For pain in small areas of the body, such as the elbow, wrist, or fingers, an at-home "ice massage" can do wonders. Simply fill a paper cup with water, allow it to freeze, cover it with a damp washcloth, then gently rub it over the affected area.

Heat and cold therapy safety

3 things to remember

Both cold and heat therapy have been shown to offer pain-relieving benefits for a wide range of health conditions.2 But before trying out a cold or heat pack for yourself, talk to your doctor, and remember the following general guidelines:

  1. Generally speaking, cold - not heat - is used for acute injuries.3 Cold helps reduce inflammation, pain, and swelling. Heat can relieve pain, too, but in acute injuries less than 6 weeks old it can also increase inflammation.2,3 Instead, heat is typically used for chronic joint pain conditions like arthritis.
  2. Always use your heat or cold pack as instructed and make sure the product isn't damaged (especially if it has electrical components). Used incorrectly or for too long, cold and heat packs can cause problems like frostbite and burns, respectively. It’s a good idea not to apply either directly to the skin. According to one website, heat and cold should not be applied for more than 10 minutes at a time.4
  3. Cold or heat therapy should not be used on areas of your body with decreased sensitivity or damaged skin.2
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This content was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. John Sperling, paid Zimmer Biomet consultant.
  1. Block, J. (2010, Jul 7). Cold and compression in the management of musculoskeletal injuries and orthopedic operative procedures: a narrative review. Journal of Sports Medicine. 1:105-113. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3781860/
  2. Brazier, Y. (2021, Apr 25). Hot or cold: which therapy works best. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/29108#cold_therapy
  3. (2020, Dec 8) Here’s how to choose between using ice or heat for pain. Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/should-you-use-ice-or-heat-for-pain-infographic/
  4. Inverarity, L. (2019, Dec 2).  How Long Should You Ice an Injury? VeryWellHealth. https://www.verywellhealth.com/how-long-should-you-ice-an-injury-2696108

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