Heat Or Ice For Knee Pain | Which Is Better?

Written By on July 25, 2022 — Medically Reviewed By Mitch Torres (PT)

fire and ice, Heat Or Ice For Knee Pain

Thermotherapy is a well-known first aid treatment for joint issues. But recognizing when to use heat or ice for knee pain could make all the difference in your recovery.

For example, heat is good for easing your chronic pain and muscle spasms. Ice, on the other hand, goes well with an acute injury.

But don’t worry, I’ll explain all of this below. You’ll learn how both heat and cold work to ease knee pain, in which situations they’re best, and how to use them. This is what we’ll cover, tap any of these bullets to get to its section:

Heat for knee joint pain

heating pad wrapped around a person's knee.  a wire coming out of the heating pad with the person holding the control

Research shows that heat activates nerve pathways responsible for relieving pain. (1) It also helps loosen tight muscles and joints so you can move better.

Aside from pain, using heat therapy also improves blood flow around the affected area. (1) This could increase the supply of nutrients to your knee and promote healing.

Heat provides several benefits that can help the knee in situations such as:

Chronic knee pain

This condition is characterized by months of dealing with pain. Here, heat therapy could potentially jumpstart your healing by easing symptoms and reducing tension in your muscles.

Knee osteoarthritis

This is a long-term condition relating to joint cartilage wear and tear. Heat therapy can help bring symptomatic relief to both joint arthritis pain and stiffness.

Learn more: Does heat work for knee OA?

Before a workout

Heat therapy helps improve blood flow to the target area. This means you can use it on your knee to complement your warm-up routine.

Right before bedtime

The warm sensation of a heating pad is undoubtedly very relaxing and comforting. You can include heat therapy as part of your nightly routine to wind down and get set for bed.

How to use heat therapy to ease joint pain in your knee?

There are several ways to do this. The most popular include:

Hot water bottle

This is a good do-it-yourself option that you can use at home. Yet, one downside is that the heat may not last that long since it’s not inside a special thermal device.

Electric heating pad

This portable device can supply a consistent amount of heat to your knee. It is also rechargeable, making it easy to reuse.

Ultrasound

This device is often used in a physical therapy setting. It can reach and heat some of the deeper muscles and ligaments within your knee.

Ice for knee pain

person using a cold pack on their their knee

Ice can help ease pain by slowing down your nerve signals. (1) You might feel this as a numbing sensation on your skin after a few minutes of use.

Using ice also decreases the blood flow to your target area. (1) This is a good thing, particularly for acute injuries, since it’ll make it harder for pain-inducing chemicals to go over your joint.

Now, some conditions and situations can benefit from ice therapy:

Swelling

Ice can reduce swelling by constricting the superficial blood vessels on your knee. This in turn reduces the excess fluid build-up, thus helping with inflammation.

This can help: How to reduce knee swelling in 4 steps.

Recent sprains

A sudden popping noise followed by pain could mean you have a knee sprain. In this scenario, using ice as a first aid tool could reduce your symptoms while you get it checked.

Tendonitis

This is the inflammation of tendons, which feels like pain and stiffness near the joints, usually before and after an activity. Using ice could reduce this, helping with any flare-ups.

Rheumatoid arthritis and gout

These are two types of arthritis that can lead to flare-ups, which cause pain and swelling. Ice can temporarily alleviate this by decreasing the inflammatory chemicals within your knee.

After a workout

Ice can help flush out the inflammation buildup after a hard workout and essentially shift your body into recovery mode.

How to use cold therapy for knee pain?

Apart from the RICE protocol, the most popular ways to apply ice therapy to the knee joint include:

Ice pack

Here, crushed ice within a resealable plastic bag is placed on your knee to provide pain relief. A frozen bag of vegetables or the typical gel pack can work just as well.

Ice massage

This is an ice popsicle made from a frozen styrofoam cup. It’s applied in a circular fashion around your knee, giving it an intense cooling sensation.

Coolant sprays

This spraying device uses menthol to produce a cooling sensation on your skin. It also helps activate specific nerves responsible to cause pain relief. (1)

FAQs

Does heat make knee pain worse?

Heat can make knee pain worse if you use it incorrectly. For instance, using heat on a recent injury might cause more swelling leading to even worse pain.

Related: What if ice makes my knee pain worse?

What is the fastest way to relieve knee pain?

The RICE method might be the fastest option. It’ll only take up to 10 minutes of your time to provide you with temporary joint pain relief. (2)

How often should I use ice or heat for joint pain?

Use ice for 10 minutes, 2 to 4 times per day for the first 3 days. (2) Afterward, use heat every other day for 20 minutes at a time. (3)

Related: What’s best for arthritic knees – heat or cold?

Conclusion: What is better for knee pain, heat, or cold?

Ice and heat therapy are two effective options to relieve aching joints. To say one is better than the other would depend on the condition of your knee.

Pain and swelling from recent injuries are scenarios where ice truly does its best. After a few days, you can do heat therapy to further improve your healing potential.

To further maximize their effect, pair any of the two remedies with other pain-relieving treatments like exercises, physical therapy, and medications.

Resources

  1. Malanga, Gerard A et al. “Mechanisms and efficacy of heat and cold therapies for musculoskeletal injury.” Postgraduate medicine vol. 127,1 (2015): 57-65. DOI: 10.1080/00325481.2015.992719
  2. Scialoia, Dominic et al. “The R.I.C.E Protocol is a MYTH: A Review and Recommendations.” The Sport Journal ISSN: 1543-9518|Vol. 24. https://thesportjournal.org/article/the-r-i-c-e-protocol-is-a-myth-a-review-and-recommendations/
  3. Yildirim, Nurcan et al. “The effect of heat application on pain, stiffness, physical function and quality of life in patients with knee osteoarthritis.” Journal of clinical nursing vol. 19,7-8 (2010): 1113-20. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2702.2009.03070.x

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Author
Paolo Sarmiento (PT)

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