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Hot & Cold Pack Therapy

author image Nancy Clarke
Nancy Clarke began writing in 1988 after achieving her Bachelor of Arts in English and has edited books on medicine, diet, senior care and other health topics. Her related affiliations include work for the American Medical Association and Oregon Health Plan.
Hot & Cold Pack Therapy
Alternating heat and cold may relieve pain due to a knee sprain. Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images

Heat and cold therapy is thought to be more effective than over-the-counter drugs by many pain sufferers. It represents a viable choice in nonmedicinal pain relief. According to the American Pain Society, nearly 10 percent of Americans live with chronic pain not caused by cancer. If you fall into that percentage, or if you’ve suffered a temporary injury, you can purchase a large, pliable gel pack that can be used for hot or cold compresses.


Temporary medical conditions that respond well to heat and cold therapy include muscle strains, joint sprains and any injury that causes visible swelling or internal aching. Soreness induced by pregnancy or carrying children can also be addressed with hot packs.

Chronic physical ailments can be eased with hot or cold applications when pain flares. These include osteoarthritis, migraines, sports injuries, repetitive motion syndromes, fibromyalgia and conditions that cause back pain. Cancer patients may also find local pain relief.

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Hot packs should be used for 20 minutes or more, but not on areas that have undergone radiation treatment. Heat applied to the body serves to increase the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients. It relaxes stiff muscles and dissipates that sore feeling in muscles and joints.

Don’t use heat and cold therapy on broken skin. If your hot pack is scalding, wait a few minutes or wrap it in a thin towel so you don’t burn yourself.


Cold packs offer pain relief to inflamed parts of the body. They should be applied for 20 minutes or less. The acute inflammation of shoulder injuries, such as bursitis and tendonitis, can be tamed with cold temperatures. Headaches, muscle tension and spasms may also be eased.

Apply cold packs to sprains or blows to wrists, elbows, knees and ankles. If your gel pack is too cold, simply keep in the refrigerator. This makes it a comfortable temperature to place directly against your skin.


Human Kinetics.com suggests that alternating heat and cold therapy is effective pain relief for recovery from athletic injuries and swelling. You may have combination symptoms, such as muscle or ligament soreness plus inflammation of the surrounding area.

Use two gel packs or a substitute such as a hot water bottle or bag of frozen peas. Start with your hot pack and alternate with cold, always ending your session with cold.


Large gel packs--11 or 12 inches by 14 or 15 inches--are the easiest to use and give the best coverage. Buy a soft pack that will remain flexible in the fridge or freezer, not the hard type used to keep foods cold.

Be sure it is approved for heat or cold temperatures. Most gel packs can be heated in hot water from a stovetop or microwaved and chilled. Purchase them at medical supply stores and pharmacies.

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