Is Heat or Ice Better for a Pulled Muscle? When to Use

Is Heat or Ice Better for a Pulled Muscle? When to Use

Pulled or strained muscles are a common injury across populations. It’s one of the most prevalent injuries in people who play sports and those who overuse their muscles without proper warm up/cool down time. 

Muscle strains can be caused by bruising, stretching, or lacerations to the muscle fibers and can persist for weeks, or sometimes months depending on the severity of injury. 

Signs of a Pulled Muscle 

Signs of a muscle strain are similar across most muscle groups and can be seen in the list below: 

  • Pain that worsens with movement
  • Muscle cramping or spasms
  • Decreased mobility or function of the muscle group
  • Swelling
  • Weakness
  • Muscle tenderness
  • Bruising 

Muscle strains are often unilateral or occurring only on one side.

In these instances, people often describe feeling “uneven” and report increased tightness or pain on one side versus the other. The symptoms will be similar to the ones listed above but only felt on one side.

When to Use Heat for a Pulled Muscle

In the acute phase of injury (i.e. the first 3-7 days), implementation of “PRICE” is imperative to a speedy recovery. This acronym refers to Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.


PRICE Therapy for Injuries

Initially, protection and rest of the affected muscle group allows for your body’s natural healing process to begin. 

The use of ice, compression, and elevation are all aimed at reducing inflammation of the area to prevent excessive swelling.

Ice should be used in 20-30 minutes intervals to aid the healing process. Anti-inflammatories are also advised for muscle strains in the acute phase. 



After the first 3-7 days, it’s usually safe to begin moving the affected muscle groups. These muscles typically become tight and stiff following the period of rest, so heat can be used to help loosen them up.

This combination of stretching and heat helps reduce muscle cramps and facilitates muscle flexibility. If you are unsure how or when to begin using heat and implementing a stretching routine, consult a professional. 

Are Heating Pads Good for a Pulled Muscle?

Once out of the initial injury phase, a heating pad can be used to loosen tight muscles and promote relaxation. It is important to avoid the application of heat for more than 20 minutes as it can damage your tissue if left on for long periods of time. 

heating pad for pulled back muscle

Hot baths and showers are another excellent method that can be used to help loosen tight muscles.

Either method works but be conscious of your safety and comfort level getting in/out of the bathtub if your legs or back are affected. 

Unlike with icing, it is not advised to repeatedly treat the affected area with heat so make the most of it when you can.

Try applying the heat and performing gentle range of motion and stretching exercises to get the most out of the treatment.

Does Icy Hot or Pain Creams Work for a Pulled Muscle?

Topical gels like icy hot, biofreeze, and cryoderm are excellent pain relievers.

While these treatments will not heal the injury, they do help reduce pain which in turn allows you to move more freely to stretch and strengthen the affected muscle group.

How Long Does It Take a Pulled Muscle to Heal?

As mentioned above, recovery depends on the severity of your injury. In mild cases, the fibers can heal in 2-4 weeks. In more extreme cases, it can take upwards of 2-3 months to heal. 

Early mobilization of pulled muscle groups can help speed up the recovery process by maintaining muscle flexibility while it heals. 

If you have a muscle injury that does not respond to conservative treatments like the PRICE protocol, consult your doctor for further treatment options as you might be dealing with a more serious injury.


Cleveland Clinic. “Back Strains and Sprains.” Cleveland Clinic, 2018,

SantAnna, João Paulo, et al. “Lesão muscular: Fisiopatologia, Diagnóstico E tratamento.” Revista Brasileira de Ortopedia, vol. 57, no. 01, 2022, pp. 001–013,



PT, DPT - Medical Content Writer
Dr. Jessie Glennon completed her Bachelor’s degree at Florida Gulf Coast University in Health Science Administration with a minor in Psychology in 2018, and then went on to obtain her Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Florida in 2021. more
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