If you suffer from pinched nerves or radiculopathy in your neck, you know how agonizing and debilitating the shooting pain can be. Finding relief when nerves are irritated can seem impossible. But two simple therapies – heat and ice – may provide some comfort when nerve pain flares up. Which one works better? Here is an in-depth look at the pros and cons of using heat versus ice for nerve pain in the neck.
How Pinched Nerves Cause Pain
Before exploring heat and ice treatments, it helps to understand what causes neck nerve pain in the first place. Here’s a quick overview:
- Cervical spine nerve roots exit the spinal cord through small openings between vertebrae.
- Herniated discs, bone spurs, scar tissue or joint swelling can compress nerves at these exits.
- Pinched or irritated nerves then misfire and transmit exaggerated pain signals down the arm, hand or fingers.
- Inflamed nerves also become overly sensitive to stimuli like touch or temperature changes.
Relieving nerve “pinch” points is key to managing neuropathic neck and arm pain. Heat and ice therapies work through different mechanisms to accomplish this.
Potential Benefits of Heat Therapy
Heat is thought to alleviate nerve root compression and irritation in the neck through the following mechanisms:
- Relaxes muscles – Heat helps loosen up tensed neck muscles that may be compressing nerves due to spasms.
- Increases blood flow – Improved circulation provides nerve roots with more oxygen and stimulates healing.
- Reduces stiffness – Heat keeps tissues and joints supple so nerves can glide freely without friction or tugging.
- Blocks pain signals – Heat stimulates nerves to help “override” and block pain signals from pinched nerves.
- Improves range of motion – Warmth enables you to stretch and gently exercise to take pressure off nerve roots.
Heat works best for nerve pain accompanied by muscle tightness and stiffness. It both relaxes tissues putting pressure on nerves while stimulating nerve pathways to reduce transmission of pain signals.
Potential Benefits of Ice Therapy
Ice and cold therapy have the following pain-alleviating effects on pinched neck nerves:
- Reduces inflammation – Cold causes vasoconstriction to limit inflammatory compounds pooling around irritated nerves.
- Slows nerve conduction – Cold partially “numbs” nerves and slows the speed at which they transmit exaggerated pain signals.
- Eases muscle spasms – Cold helps muscles unwind from spasms that may be pinching nerve roots.
- Naturally anesthetizes – By chilling the skin, cold provides a numbing effect that dulls nerve pain signals.
- Constricts blood vessels – This reduces pressure on compressed nerves.
Ice therapy aims to directly calm the irritation and inflammation of compressed nerves. It also inhibits their ability to transmit pain signals.
Key Considerations for Heat vs. Ice
When evaluating heat vs. ice for nerve pain, keep these key points in mind:
- Ice is best for acute flare-ups while heat works better for chronic nerve pain.
- Don’t use heat if there is significant inflammation or swelling present.
- Alternate heat and ice if the nerve pain involves both muscle tightness and inflammation.
- Avoid placing ice or extreme heat directly on the skin.
- Heat provides comfort before activity or therapy while ice treats pain after activity.
- Headache-like nerve pain may respond better to ice while radiating arm pain may prefer heat.
- Experiment to see which thermal therapy provides you the most relief.
Best Practices for Safer Application
To maximize benefits and safety, follow these best practices when using heat or ice for nerve pain:
Heat Therapy Best Practices
- Use warm compresses or gel packs designed for hot therapy. Don’t apply direct high heat.
- Wrap heated items in a towel before application. Test temperature on your wrist first.
- Apply heat for 10-15 minutes at a time, repeating every 2-3 hours as needed.
- Use gentle heat sources like microwavable rice bags that conform to the neck.
- Avoid using heating pads on “high” and don’t go to sleep with pads on.
- Stay hydrated while doing heat therapy to avoid dehydration headaches.
Ice Therapy Best Practices
- Never place ice directly on bare skin. Use a cloth or gel pack barrier.
- Apply ice for no more than 10-15 minutes at once to avoid frost damage.
- Allow skin to return to normal temperature before icing again.
- Combine ice with gentle massage to help muscles relax too.
- Wrap frozen gel packs or bags of ice in a towel for comfort and to control temperature.
- Alternate periods of icing with periods of rest without cold exposure.
- Avoid using ice over healing fractures, open wounds or recent surgery sites.
See a Doctor for Severe or Persistent Nerve Pain
While heat and ice therapies can certainly help provide relief for mild to moderate neuropathic neck pain, severe or persistent nerve compression issues may require other medical treatment. See your doctor promptly if you experience:
- Arm/hand weakness making it hard to grip objects
- Numbness or tingling traveling down the arm
- Loss of coordination or difficulty walking
- Shooting pain so severe it disrupts sleep
- Headaches originating from the base of the skull
You may need interventions like steroid injections, physical therapy or even surgery for serious pinched nerves causing functional impairment. But in the meantime, heat and ice can offer natural pain-soothing relief. With some experimentation, you’re likely to find one works better than the other for your specific neck nerve pain.