Knee Pain Relief - When to Ice It, When to Put Heat On It. A Guide to Ice and Heat Therapy

December 2, 2023

Understanding Ice Therapy for Knee Pain and Beyond

Knee pain is a prevalent issue affecting people from various walks of life due to injuries, arthritis, or overexertion. Effective pain management is crucial, and ice and heat therapies are powerful tools in this journey. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the nuances of knee pain management, incorporating insights from OrthoNJ, a renowned orthopedic practice with six divisions, each housing expert orthopedic surgeons specializing in knee issues.

When Do I Ice An Injury? Ice Therapy Decoded!

Ice therapy, or cryotherapy, involves applying cold to the affected area, reducing blood flow, and providing immediate relief by numbing pain. It can be a very effective method of relieving discomfort, but knowing when to ice an injury and when to apply heat to an injury is essential.

When Do I Use Ice Therapy?

Applying ice for acute injuries:

  • Strains
  • Sprains
  • Minor tears
  • It is best to apply ice within 48 hours of the injury occurring

Applying ice to combat swelling and inflammation:

  • Injuries where there is visible swelling, like a visibly swollen knee
  • Ideal for visibly swollen knees, reducing inflammation, especially in conditions like tendonitis

Applying ice for post-workout recovery:

  • To help prevent inflammation and soothe muscles
  • Beneficial after intense physical activity to help prevent inflammation and soothe muscles.

Extended Application for Other Injuries:

  • Ice therapy is also effective for various injuries, such as ankle sprains and muscle strains.

How Should Ice Be Applied?

Knowing how to apply ice to an injury is just as important as knowing when to apply ice to an injury. There are some important things to know like should you apply ice directly to skin? What is the proper icing technique? How long to ice an injury?

You can use many different types of ice packs for applying ice to an injury like a gel ice pack, or even a homemade one with ice and some water in a sealable bag with the air squeezed out of it. No matter which type of ice compress you use, here are three important components of the proper icing technique:


  • Wrap the ice pack to prevent direct skin contact and potential ice burns.


  • The sweet spot for how long to ice an injury is to ice for 15-20 minutes, with breaks to avoid skin damage or increased pain.


  • You can enhance the effectiveness of your cold compress by elevating the affected area during your icing therapy.

When Do I Apply Heat To An Injury? Heat Therapy Explained

Heat therapy, or thermotherapy, involves applying heat to increase blood flow and relax tight muscles. This can make it suitable for chronic knee pain.

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When to Use Heat Therapy

Chronic Pain: Heat therapy can be ideal for long-term knee pain associated with conditions like arthritis.

Muscle Spasms: Heat therapy can be effective in alleviating muscle spasms and cramps contributing to knee pain.

Before Exercise: Applying heat in preparation before physical activity can help increase flexibility and reduce the risk of injury.

Other Applications: Heat therapy is also beneficial for addressing muscle tension in areas like the lower back and shoulders.

How to Apply Heat

Moist Heat: Utilize sources like warm showers for enhanced relief by loosening tight muscles.

Duration: Sessions last 20-30 minutes, avoiding excessive relaxation that may worsen pain.

Protection: Always use a cloth or towel to prevent burns during heat therapy and remove it if the heat is too hot or painful.

Choosing the Right Therapy - Cold Compress vs. Hot Compress

Here is a quick overview of when to apply ice vs. when to apply heat:

When to apply ice:

  • Sprains*
  • Strains*
  • Minor tears*
  • Swelling
  • Inflammation
  • Post-Workout Recovery

*within the first 48 hours

When to apply heat:

  • Chronic pain
  • Muscle Spasms
  • Before exercise to relax muscles
  • Other muscle tension in the body

When deciding between ice and heat therapy for your knee issues, consider the following tips:

  1. Alternate Therapy:
    • Start with ice for the first 72 hours if there's swelling, then transition to heat therapy.
  2. Initial Treatment:
    • Begin with ice for acute injuries, then switch to heat therapy for muscle relaxation.
  3. Chronic Conditions:
    • For chronic conditions like arthritis, heat therapy may offer sustained relief.

Expert Orthopaedic Insights on Knee Pain Management

OrthoNJ is a leading orthopedic group with six divisions, each housing orthopedic surgeons with specialized expertise in knee issues. We've got your knees covered with offices from northern New Jersey all down the coast to southern New Jersey. OrthoNJ divisions are highly experienced in hip and knee orthopedics, from hip or knee physical therapy to total replacement. Let us get you back on your feet!

OrthoNJ Has Six Divisions Spanning New Jersey:

Orthopedic Institute Brielle Orthopaedics

  • Toms River
  • Manahawkin
  • Brick
  • Freehold
  • Edison
  • Lacey
  • Wall
  • Red Bank

Princeton Orthopaedic Associates

  • Princeton
  • Robbinsville
  • Ewing
  • Plainsboro
  • Monroe
  • Hillsborough

Ridgewood Orthopedic Group

  • Ridgewood
  • Mahwah

Shore Orthopaedic University Associates

  • Somers Point
  • Galloway
  • Cape May Court House
  • Manahawkin

Union County Orthopaedic Group

  • Linden
  • Clark
  • Union

University Orthopaedic Associates

  • Somerset
  • Wall
  • Woodbridge
  • Princeton
  • Morganville
  • Monroe

Benefits of chosing an ONJ Orthopaedic Surgeon:

  •     Specialists focusing on knee injuries, acute and chronic knee conditions.
  •     Services for managing chronic knee pain.
  •     Gain insights into the latest advancements in knee pain management.
  •     Personalized diagnosis and treatment plan.

Ice and heat therapies are integral to knee pain management, each serving a specific purpose. However, if your knee pain from an injury or undiagnosed chronic condition is lingering it is important to see an orthopaedic specialist. OrthoNJ's practitioners provide a holistic approach to knee pain assessment, treatment, and relief. The therapies above complement professional medical advice, and if knee pain persists, consult an OrthoNJ division for a comprehensive evaluation and a personalized treatment plan. Optimize your knee health with the expert guidance and specialized care OrthoNJ provides.

You can find a knee specialist in our provider directory.

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