Athletes young and old can relate to the ice bath that seemed to be a fixture in locker rooms across the country. Convinced that this exercise would reduce inflammation, speed recovery and get them back on the practice field faster, the ice bath was as much a rite of passage as it was actual science.

Then there were those that swore that heat, not ice, helped speed recovery, ease tension, and relax over-worked muscles. To the dry sauna they would go to sit, evaluate their workout, and recover before hitting the showers.

Ice or Heat? Who’s Right?

While sitting in a sauna sounds much more appealing than freezing in a tub of ice water, the answer to this age-old question may surprise you. When it comes to whether you should use ice or heat to ease your discomfort, the answer is, you should use both.

Ice for Inflammation

When it comes to inflammation, there is no better solution than good ol’ ice. Cold therapy constricts blood vessels in the body which reduces inflammation and eases pain. Ice is especially effective for easing pain in arthritic joints, sprained or strained muscles or joints, headaches, or other chronic inflammatory conditions. While some may argue that ice’s effectiveness is limited to the surface of the skin and its underlying tissue, many aches and pains can be greatly helped by applying ice to the area for 10-15 minutes at a time (without applying it directly to the skin). If you are reluctant to spend time with an ice pack and shun the dreaded ice bath, cryotherapy offers better total-body, anti-inflammatory benefits than ice alone in just two to three minutes. Standing in a dry cryotherapy chamber, your body is exposed to subzero temperatures to reduce overall inflammation. Best of all, cryotherapy’s effects last long after the treatment is over.

Heat for Relaxation

Heat therapy, particularly moist heat from a warmed moist towel or steam sauna, can be an effective way to relax tense muscles, ease aches and limit spasms in painful areas. Heat is also an ideal way to relieve stiffness once inflammation has subsided. Applying warm, moist heat after ice can relieve arthritis pain, headaches or chronic inflammatory conditions. Heat works by increasing blood flow to an area which relaxes the muscles associated with the chronic condition. While it can be used alone for occasional muscle stiffness, it should never be used on its own for acute injuries like sprains and strains. Since heat is associated with increased blood flow, it can make inflammation worse when it is used on its own for these conditions. That is why alternating ice and heat is so effective. Ice reduces inflammation while heat relaxes tense muscles that are often made worse by ice alone.

Fortunately for all of us, the age-old question of ice or heat can be settled by using both in turn for specific conditions. While ice reduces inflammation in injured tissue and joints, heat is particularly effective at relaxing tense muscles and easing aches and pains. When applied directly to the affected area, both ancient therapies can have you back on your feet and feeling fine in no time.