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Is Heat Or Cold Better For Muscle Cramps?

When there is an involuntary movement of one or more muscles that is sudden and leads to a very sharp pain, it is known as a muscle cramp.1

Is Heat Or Cold Better For Muscle Cramps?

Is Heat Or Cold Better For Muscle Cramps?

Heat or cold therapy is often advised for easing an ache or pain caused by muscle or joint problems. Some cases may require alternating with heat and cold therapy. This technique will increase the blood flow to the site of injury, helping it to heal faster.

Heat and cold therapy, both are useful in different types of injuries, including muscle cramps. Heat is to be applied in chronic cases of cramps while ice is to be applied within 48 hours of the cramping injury. 2

Heat Therapy

Application of heat to the affected area will help in dilatation of blood vessels. This will enhance the blood flow to the affected site helping in better relaxation and healing of the tightened and sore muscles. Heat can help in removal of the build up of lactic acid waste from the muscles. Also, heat is quite reassuring, which might be helpful in enhancing its healing properties.

Heat therapy is generally more useful in the treatment of chronic diseases.

Different types of heat therapy can include-

  • Using safe heating pads or devices on the affected area. These may include electrical heating devices, hot water bottles, hot compresses, heat wraps etc.
  • Soaking the affected area in a hot bath
  • Treating with heated wax
  • Using medications that contain capsicum

Dry heat and moist heat are again two more different types of heat therapy. Moist heat is to be applied for a lesser duration of time, approximately 0 -2 hours and is believed to be more effective. Dry heat can be kept for a longer duration however, it is believed to be less effective than moist heat therapy

Heat can be applied to the affected area for a maximum of 20 minutes at a stretch. This can be repeated thrice a day or as per recommendations

Heat is extremely useful in alleviating aching pain associated with arthritis, spasms, sprains and strains, tendonitis, stiffness of muscles, pain or aches associated to back and neck injury.

When Is Heat Not To Be Used?

Heat is not to be used if-

  • The injury is already hot, like infections, burns or fresh, new injuries. These injuries will not benefit from excess warmth
  • The skin is inflamed or red and hot
  • Dermatitis or open wound
  • Numbness in the affected area
  • Insensitivity to heat as a result of peripheral neuropathy

Cold Therapy

Cold therapy decreases the blood flow to the affected area, which may be helpful in controlling and reducing the inflammation and tissue damage. Cold causes numbness in sore tissues, thus providing with a local anesthetic. This may slow down the messages of pain transferred from the affected site to the brain

  • Cold therapy or ice therapy is best used within 48 hours of the injury
  • As a standard protocol for sports injuries, rest, ice, compression and elevation, also known as RICE, is included
  • However, a point to be noted is that ice should not be used directly on the skin

Different types of cold therapy can include-

  • Various methods and devices like a cold compress, cold pack
  • Soaking in cool or cold water that is not freezing
  • Ice pack or ice cube massage in a circular motion
  • Cold therapy is useful in arthritis, a new injury, strains, gout, tendinitis

When Is Ice Or Cold Therapy Not To Be Used?

  • Ice therapy should not be used-
  • Directly on the bony spine
  • If there is a risk of increasing cramping, as cold can make cramping worse
  • If the affected site is numb
  • If the person is already cold
  • Open wound or blisters
  • Vascular diseases or sympathetic dysfunction
  • Hypersensitivity to cold
  • Directly on the skin for the risk of frostbite


Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 2, 2019

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