Hot and cold therapies, such as heating pads and ice packs, use varying temperatures to treat injury or illness. Many people use hot or cold therapy to lessen symptoms and decrease pain and swelling associated with a variety of conditions, such as arthritis, aches and strains, muscle spasms and pulls, tennis elbow, runner’s knee, and minor bumps and bruises.
As you choose a hot or cold therapy product to manage minor injuries or aches at home, keep the following in mind:
Talk to your doctor if you experience prolonged or severe pain; unchecked pain can signal a serious condition that may require medical care.
Cold therapy generally is recommended for the first two to three days after acute injuries, such as a twisted ankle or a new bruise.
Heat therapy can be helpful for some chronic conditions, such as joint pain due to arthritis or tight, knotted muscles.
Consider the shape and size of product that best suits your needs. Hot and cold therapies come as bands or wraps, with and without pressure points to target specific issues, and in kid-friendly sizes and shapes.
Consult your doctor or pharmacist if unsure about whether hot or cold therapy is best for your condition.
Dual Hot & Cold Therapies
What they are: These products contain gels or other materials that can be used hot or cold. When placed in the freezer before use, they become cold therapy. To use as hot therapy, the product can be heated in hot water or the microwave.
Why to buy: If you aren’t sure whether you need hot or cold therapy, a dual use product will give you both options.
Things to consider: Determine how long it takes the product to become hot or cold enough for use, how long you can expect the pack to stay hot or cold when in use, and whether this fits your needs. Some products can be microwaved for quick heat up, while others have to be placed in hot or boiling water, which takes a little more time and effort.
What they are: These products are designed to supply heat only. They include electric hot pads, heatable gel pads, hot water bottles, and single use “sticky” products that are applied directly to the skin.
Why to buy: If you have a chronic condition that responds well to heat, focus on getting the best heat source for your money.
Things to consider: Electric heating pads stay hot as long as they are plugged in, but you must stay near an outlet. It is not safe to sleep on or with most electric hot pads, so choose another option for nighttime use. Heatable gel pads and sticky pads are more portable, but the heat lasts only for an hour to a few hours.
What they are: These products are designed to supply cold only. They include ice packs and freezable gel packs.
Why to buy: If you know you need cold to treat your condition, keeping one or two of these products in the freezer provides cold therapy right when you want it. If you want cold longer than a single product provides, rotate two packs into and out of the freezer.
Things to consider: Do not use cold therapy for longer than recommended, because long periods of cold exposure can damage skin. Place a towel between the ice pack and your skin if recommended in product instructions.
Topical Hot & Cold Products
What they are: Topical products provide a hot or cold sensation over the area to which they are applied. Some products start with a cold sensation and move toward heat over time.
Why to buy: These products are quick and convenient—you rub onto the skin and go. Many are formulated so they don’t stain clothing or have a strong odor. Some products have a pleasant odor, adding aromatherapy to the healing experience.
Things to consider: Some hot and cold therapies are topical, meaning they are applied to the skin. These may contain additional pain-relieving medicines, such as aspirin (products with aspirin should not be given to children). Always compare ingredients to avoid accidentally combining more than one therapy with the same active ingredients. If unsure, check with your doctor or pharmacist about whether these are safe for you. Test any topical product on a small area prior to full application, to ensure it doesn’t cause skin irritation or an allergic reaction.