When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling [Infographic]

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Interested in trying a warm compress or ice packs to relieve arthritic pain and swelling? Keep reading for important information you should know about them.
RELATED: Arthritis Medication, Therapies, And Self-Care Or Arthritis Medications: Your A-Z Drug Guide
In this article:

  1. What Is a Compress?
  2. What Are the Benefits of a Warm Compress?
  3. What Are the Benefits of a Cold Compress?
  4. When Should You Use a Hot Compress?
  5. When Should You Use a Cold Compress?
  6. Where Can You Buy a Warm or Cold Compress?
  7. Why Is It Important to Know the Difference Between the Uses of Hot Compress and Cold Compress?
  8. How Do You Make a DIY Warm Compress?
  9. How Do You Make a Cold Compress at Home?
  10. How Do You Use a Warm Compress?
  11. How Do You Use a Cold Compress?
  12. Who Needs to Use a Cold or Warm Compress?
  13. When Should You Not Use a Hot Compress?
  14. When Should You Not Use a Cold Compress?
  15. When Should You Alternate Cold and Warm Compresses?
  16. Is Adding Herbs to Your Warm Compress Beneficial?
  17. Are There Potential Risks for a Warm Compress?
  18. Are There Potential Risks for a Cold Compress?

Cold or Warm Compress to Ease Pain and Inflammation

Click here to jump to the infographic.

What Is a Compress?

A compress is any material, a cloth, for example, applied with pressure to an area of the body. It’s usually held in place for a period of time, and it can either be hot or cold, or dry or wet.
In some cases, compresses are also infused with medication or herbal remedies.

What Are the Benefits of a Warm Compress?

caucasian woman having painful period cramps | When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling [Infographic] | warm compress | what is a warm compress
Use a warm compress to soothe cramps.

1. Eases Muscle Tension and Stress

Muscle tension and stress usually go hand in hand. Heat therapy gives a soothing feeling and added comfort to the affected area.

2. Promotes Healing of Injuries

Heat increases blood flow in the body. This effect can help heal injuries faster and lower pain levels from an injury.

3. Soothes Body Stiffness

Body stiffness can limit your movement and flexibility. The warmth from a hot compress or shower is a good remedy that can loosen stiff muscles.

4. Relieves Soreness and Spasm

Body soreness or spasm may be a result of over-exertion or working out a body part that’s been kept unexercised for a long time. Heat therapy can help loosen tightened muscles and relieve swelling.

What Are the Benefits of a Cold Compress?

man holding cold pack on his neck | When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling [Infographic] | warm compress | warm compress for eyes
Use a cold compress to relax muscle pain.

1. Provides Additional Pain Relief

A study showed that participants who wrapped their necks with ice packs experienced reduced symptoms of neck pain.

2. Recharges Muscles After a Workout

Applying a cold treatment aids the muscles in repairing themselves. One review of studies revealed that cryotherapy helped lowered muscle pain in 80% of the analyzed studies.

Cryotherapy Definition: A pain therapy that uses localized freezing temperatures to alleviate irritated nerves

The study also showed that people experienced improved athletic performance and recovery in 71% of the analyzed studies.

3. Soothes Injured Tissues, Joints, and Muscles

A cold compress can provide relief for sprains and bruises by reducing inflammation that causes pain. If you treat ankle sprains with a cold compress, it can take about a week to recover.
The therapy can also help with repetitive strain injuries like:

  • Plantar fasciitis – A swelling of the plantar fascia that joins the front of your foot and your heel, causing extreme heel pain
  • Shin splints – An inflammation of the bone tissue surrounding your tibia, tendons, and muscles
  • Cubital tunnel syndrome – Includes stretching or pressure on the ulnar nerve, causing weakness in the hand, pain in the forearm, or tingling and numbness in the small fingers
  • Trigger finger – Painful locking when you bend or straighten your finger
  • Tendonitis – A swollen tendon as a result of an injury
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome – Squeezing of the median nerve causing tingling, numbness, or pain in the arm and hand

4. Speeds Up Recovery from an Injury

As cold therapy helps reduce swelling, it can also help your soft tissue normalize its function at a faster rate.

When Should You Use a Hot Compress?

Use a hot compress to:

  • Reduce stiffness
  • Relax muscles
  • Stimulate blood circulation
  • Ease cramping
  • Soothe muscles and joints

Applying a warm compress to a painful arthritic joint can reduce the stiffness of the joints, relax the muscles surrounding it, and stimulate blood circulation, improving the joint’s range.

When Should You Use a Cold Compress?

A cold compress is generally used to ease pain by numbing the affected area and to reduce swelling and inflammation.
When your arthritis causes a burning sensation to your joints, applying a cold compress or an ice pack can numb the pain. If your joints are swollen (which often causes joint stiffness and pain), a cold compress can help reduce the swelling and pain.

Where Can You Buy a Hot or Cold Compress?

close up shot of pharmacy | When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling [Infographic] | warm compress | how to make a warm compress
Warm and cold compresses are available over-the-counter at most pharmacies near you.

Why Is It Important to Know the Difference Between the Uses of a Hot Compress and Cold Compress?

Using heat or cold therapy to manage arthritic pain can provide excellent relief. The challenge is knowing which one to choose and when.
Both cold and warm compresses have their appropriate use, and using either for the wrong purpose may worsen your condition. If your joint is already red and irritated, do not apply heat; if your joint is stiff and movement is limited, do not apply cold.
Remember that heat relaxes muscles and cold reduces inflammation and pain.

How Do You Make a DIY Warm Compress?

photo of a pitcher, basin and towel | When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling [Infographic] | warm compress | homemade warm compress
Make your own compress from materials you can find at home.

If you don’t want to purchase heat packs from a pharmacy, you can make your own warm compress at home. There are actually several ways you can do this.
Basic Warm Compress

  • Start by heating some water in a clean pot or filling half of a small basin with hot water from a water dispenser.
  • Add tap water until you get the ideal temperature.
  • Soak a clean towel in the basin and squeeze out the water.
  • Apply the warm towel to the affected area.

Aromatic Warm Compress

  • Fill a clean tube sock with some dry, uncooked rice, oats, or beans.
  • Add a choice of herbs or essential oils in the mix to add fragrance to the compress. Lavender, sage, mint, cinnamon, or peppermint can give a more soothing effect.
  • Remember to leave enough room at the opening of the sock to tie it into a knot.
  • If you want to permanently use this compress, you can sew it closed. To avoid having a hard compress, do not seal the sock too close to its contents.
  • After sealing the compress, heat it in the microwave for 30 seconds. Check if you like how warm the compress is and take it out or heat it up for another 10 seconds.
  • Continue heating it for 10 seconds until you’re happy with the temperature.
  • Apply the compress to the painful area. If it’s uncomfortably hot, remove it and let it cool for a few seconds before you re-apply.

Steamed Warm Compress

  • Soak a clean washcloth in water until it’s dripping wet.
  • Place the cloth in a resealable bag like a Ziploc bag. Fold the cloth properly to make sure it gets heated up evenly.
  • With the bag left open, heat it on high in a microwave for about 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Heat the bag for another 10 seconds until you get the temperature you desire.

How Do You Make a Cold Compress at Home?

close up photo of ice pack | When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling [Infographic] | warm compress | how to make a warm compress
If store-bought ice packs aren’t available at hand, you can try these DIY ice packs at home:
Basic Cold Compress

  • Soak a towel in cold water and place it in a sealable bag.
  • Leave the bag in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes.

Rubbing Alcohol Ice Pack 
Adding alcohol to water will keep it from freezing completely, resulting in a squishy, comfortable cold compress.

  • Mix 1 1/2 cups of water and 1/2 cup of rubbing alcohol in a sealable bag.
  • Place the bag in the freezer for several hours or overnight.

Dish Soap Ice Pack 
Freezing sealed dish soap yields to a gel-like or a firmer ice pack.

  • Fill a sealable bag with dish soap.
  • Place the bag in the freezer. Leave it for two hours to achieve a flexible, squishy, gel-like texture. Beyond that, you get an icier, firmer ice pack.

RELATED: How To Increase Bone Density | 11 Ways To Improve Your Bone Health

How Do You Use a Warm Compress?

woman putting hot pack on back of neck | When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling [Infographic] | warm compress | what is a warm compress
Soothe an aching muscle with a warm compress.

When using a warm compress or any other heat treatment devices like a heat pack and hot water bottle, remember the following suggestions:

  • Avoid hurting or burning your skin with uncomfortably hot compresses.
  • You can place a towel or cloth between your skin and the compress to prevent burns.
  • Do not apply heat to cuts and injured body parts.
  • Do not apply heat beyond 20 minutes at a time.

How Do You Use a Cold Compress?

Remember the following when using cold therapy devices:

  • Place a towel or cloth in between your skin and the compress to avoid irritation and skin damage.
  • Do not use cold therapy if you have circulatory issues.
  • Do not apply a cold compress beyond 20 minutes. Remove the compress if the skin already feels too cold.
  • Immediately remove the cold source once the skin becomes very numb, blotchy, bright red, or blistered.

When using either a warm or cold compress, always check your skin for change in color, rashes, or blisters to be safe.

Who Needs to Use a Cold or Warm Compress?

young runner twisted his ankle | When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling [Infographic] | warm compress | warm moist compress
Cold and warm compresses are common nursing pain reliefs that can be used to help alleviate pain and/or inflammation. Usually, these are recommended for people with:

  • Sports injuries (e.g. muscle strain and ankle sprain)
  • Shin splints
  • Acute injuries that happened within the last 48 hours
  • Sore muscles
  • Joint pain
  • Neck stiffness
  • Spasms
  • Back pain
  • Joint pain

When Should You Not Use a Hot Compress?

Applying heat is not suitable for all injuries. This therapy should not be applied if:

  • You are heat sensitive because of peripheral neuropathy or a similar health condition.
  • The affected area is numb.
  • You have an open wound or dermatitis.
  • Your skin is red or hot.
  • The damage is fresh or results from burn or infection.

It’s also important to remember that excessive heat can be harmful.

When Should You Not Use a Cold Compress?

Cold therapy should not be applied if:

  • You are sensitive to cold.
  • The affected area is already numb or cold.
  • You have a vascular disease where a nerve disorder affects your blood flow.
  • You have blistered skin or an open wound.
  • There is a high risk of cramping as this can worsen the condition.

It’s also essential to take note that cold therapy is not advisable to be applied directly to your skin. If you’re a professional athlete, you can use whole-body cryotherapy chambers, cold water immersion, or ice massage to ease exercise-induced muscle damage that can result in delayed onset muscle soreness.

When Should You Alternate Cold and Warm Compresses?

Alternating these therapies may be beneficial for exercise-induced injury or osteoarthritis, depending on your doctor’s advice. Contrast water therapy, specifically, uses both cold and hot treatments in preventing delayed onset muscle soreness and in reducing exercise-induced muscle damage.

Contrast Water Therapy Definition: Alternately immersing a limb or affected body part in hot and then, cold water

A study found out that contrast water therapy provides better results at reducing muscle pain post-workout than resting or doing nothing.

Is Adding Herbs to Your Warm Compress Beneficial?

woman using thai herbal compress ball to reduce swelling in wrist | When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling [Infographic] | warm compress | hot and cold compress
Yes, it is. Herbs like garlic can help fight bacteria-causing inflammation.
You can make your compresses from herbal infusion or tea before applying them to the affected area. If you decide to follow this treatment option to swollen eyes, make sure to strain out any herbal matter and to keep your eyes closed.
If you’re unsure, ask your doctor how you can incorporate herbs into your therapy.

Are There Potential Risks for a Warm Compress?

There is a burn risk to hot therapy if not used properly. This treatment should strictly use a “warm” temperature, not “hot.”
Aside from that, a very high temperature can increase the risk of infection spreading. It’s also important to remember that this therapy is not good to be used for more than 20 minutes at a time as it can burn your skin tissues.
If swelling increases after the therapy, stop the treatment. If the therapy does not improve symptoms after several days of treatment, visit your doctor.

Are There Potential Risks for a Cold Compress?

Cold therapy applied directly on the skin or for too long can cause nerve, tissue, or skin damage. If this treatment has not helped the inflammation or injury in two days, consult your doctor.
Don’t forget to download, save, or share this handy infographic for reference:

When To Use A Cold Or Warm Compress For Pain And Swelling [INFOGRAPHIC]
Like what you’ve just read? This video sums it all up:

How often should you try such therapies for your joints? Applying a warm compress or ice packs at least twice a day can offer the best relief from inflammation and pain.
The American College of Rheumatology also suggests the application of 5- to 10-minute massages to painful areas within the first two days the pain started to relieve discomfort. Heat therapy can help relieve pain that lasts over two days.
It is also important for adults to consume a healthy mix of daily vitamins. We recommend this Vitamin D3 supplement.
Have you used cold and warm compresses to your swollen joints? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments section below!
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When To Use a Cold or Warm Compress For Pain and Swelling https://blog.drseeds.com/warm-compress-vs-cold-compress/
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on September 26, 2019, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.

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