What's the difference between hot and cold compress?

Image of a person holding an ice pack to the elbow for cold compress treatment to relief pain.

Many of us have heard of hot and cold compress (or hot and cold therapy) to treat various injuries and ailments. However most do not know the difference in terms of specific purpose of each treatment. Hot and cold compress both work differently and each has its own function in terms of treatments.

Hot compress

Graphic of the blood circulation system in the human body

Hot compress therapy helps to improve blood circulation by dilating the blood vessels in the area where the heat is applied. This brings nutrients to the affected area, thereby accelerating the healing process and reducing pain. It is generally used to release muscle stiffness or soreness, and warm up muscles before you commence physical activity.

How long should you apply hot compress?

Hot compress should be applied to the affected area for about 10 to 15 minutes, between 4 to 6 times a day. Although heat therapy is helpful in relieving pain, please be mindful not to apply it for more than 20 minutes or you run the risk of burning yourself. Also, avoid applying the heat directly on the skin. Try to us a piece of cloth to protect your skin while applying the heat over it. Of course, like everything else, common sense prevails here. If the heat becomes unbearably hot, please remove the heat source to avoid scalding yourself.

Hot compress devices

There are many devices in the market that can provide hot compress treatment. The most common ones are listed here:

Microwavable heating bags

These are bags that are typically made out of a thick insulative fabric such as flannel and filled with grains such as wheat, buckwheat or flax seed and can be heated up in a microwave oven. The bag retains the heat and it can be applied on the affected pain area.

Powered heating pads

An electric heating pad

These heated blankets have a controllable temperature setting and are plugged into your wall socket for power. They can used on any part of the body and usually have additional protection against overheating.

Learn more about our Electric Heating Pad here:


Tourmaline self heating pads

Image of a woman wearing the ThermoTherapy belt, a self heating back brace to relief back and abdominal pain.

Some back braces with come with a self heating function by using tourmaline, a natural mineral with healing properties. The tiny tourmaline stones are embedded into the fabric of the waist belt and heat up on contact with the skin. The stones absorb heat from the skin and radiate it back to the body, creating a soothing, warming effect.

Learn more about our self-heating back brace here:


What to use hot compress for?

Heat therapy can be used to relieve pain and improve blood circulation and is especially useful for the following applications:

  • Pain in the lower back
  • Abdominal pain and discomfort
  • Before commencing physical activity
  • After completing physical activity
  • Treating arthritis pain
  • General pain on other parts of the body like knees, arms etc.
Image of a man experiencing muscle strain and neck pain

    Cold compress

    Cold therapy or cold compress treatment, as opposed to hot compress, slows down blood flow, reducing inflammation and swelling that causes pain. Cold compress is often best used for short-term pain, like that from a sprain or a strain. Cold compress packs usually come as gel packs which you can put in the freezer to lower its temperature. Once it's cold enough, you can apply it on the pain area.

    Cold compress applications

    Cold compress is best used for the following conditions:

    • Headache
    • Muscle strains and sprains
    • Gout pain
    • Tendonitis and joint pain
    • Fever
    • Eye allergies
    • Hemorrhoids

    That being said, you can use both hold or cold compress treatment in general to relieve pain. Situations that may benefit from the use of either hot or cold treatment include:

    • Upper and lower back pain
    • Muscle aches, spasms, and pains
    • Stiff neck from a poor night's sleep
    • General knee pain
    • Stiff, swollen, or tender joints
    • Pain on the wrist, hand or finger
    • Pain caused by osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia can also be relieved by hot or cold compress treatment.
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