What’s Best for Sore Muscles: Heat or Ice?
by Laura Schwecherl
Working out does the body good, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows once those supersets are through. Muscle soreness annoys most athletes, which could be a (literal) pain in the butt. But when it comes to optimal recovery, is post-workout heat or ice best?
Muscle soreness is the common cold of the exercise world: It’s a nuisance, but we’ll most likely all have to deal with it at some point in time. And while it may be, well, a little nippy, some experts have found that cryotherapy (cold therapy), is an effective way to help prevent sore muscles. (It’s important to remember that this only helps alleviate pain and doesn’t actually repair muscles faster.)
In one report, researchers looked at 17 studies involving nearly 400 people. The brave souls who endured an ice bath for at least five minutes after exercise reduced muscle soreness by 20 percent compared to those who simply rested. Don’t jibe with a tub full of ice? Cold packs have their own success story, reducing blood flow in the muscles (a sign of inflammation) by 50 percent after 10 minutes of ice-time.
Heat, on the other hand, may not fire up recovery. One study found that applying heat to muscles after exercise failed to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Some experts are quick to note that high-quality studies on heat are limited, though. One small study did find that heat wrap therapy reduced lower back pain, whereas older research warns that applying heat incorrectly may prolong the recovery process from certain sports injuries. Ouch.
Sub-Zero to Hero — Your Action Plan
For some, ice might be the one-stop shop for pain relief. The cold impact is shown to numb pain while narrowing blood vessels, which helps limit the amount of swelling. Heat actually has the opposite effect: It increases blood flow, which may enhance inflammation. But if applied after any swelling has gone down, heat may help with the muscle recovery and relaxation. Just be sure to limit electric heat pack use to 15 to 20 minutes tops, with a few layers between the pack and skin to prevent burns.
Cryotherapy could be a walk on thin ice, too, though. Some experts caution that cold therapy research is also limited and low quality. But the typical recommendation is to ice in cycles of “10 minutes on, 10 minutes off” to avoid any potential dangers. Applying ice for more than 20 minutes at once could damage muscle tissues, increase heart rate, and may even lead to shock.
Of course, there are other soothing solutions to help keep those muscles feelin’ fresh. Anti-inflammatory medication could help reduce swelling (definitely check with the doc first). And stretching, eating well, staying hydrating, and even treating the body to a massage may also do the trick to speed along recovery, no extreme temps necessary.
This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Robynn Europe and Jordan Syatt.