Hot and cold therapies are often recommended to help relieve the aching pain of muscle or joint injury. And, ice or heat packs can be used to manage and treat everything from arthritis, to strained muscles, to nerve pain. A hot or cold pack is not only cheap and easy therapy, it can be extremely effective when applied in the right setting – the tricky part is knowing when to use hot, and when to use cold. Sometimes alternating between the two is also helpful.
Basic heat therapy, or thermotherapy can involve the use of a hot water bottle, microwavable heat pads, or a simple warm bath. While for cold therapy, or cryotherapy, a water bottle filled with cold water, an ice pack or a bag of peas straight from the freezer can be used. An ice bath or cold water swim would also do the job.
Fast Facts about Ice and Heat Therapy:
- Ice/Cold therapy can decrease blood flow and reduce inflammation.
- Heat therapy can increase blood flow and helps muscles relax.
- Alternating hot and cold may help reduce exercise-induced muscle pain.
- NEVER put ice directly onto your skin or use extreme heat.
- DO NOT use either treatment on an open wound.
Ice therapy reduces blood flow to an injured area. This slows the rate of inflammation and reduces the risk of swelling and tissue damage. It also acts as a mild local anesthetic, by numbing sore tissues, and slows down the pain messages being transmitted to your brain.
Ice can help treat a swollen and inflamed joint or muscle. It is most effective within 48 hours of an injury. Rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) are part of the standard treatment for sports injuries. Ice should not be applied directly to the bony portions of the spinal column.
Ice therapy can help in cases of:
- a recent injury
- tendinitis, or irritation in the tendons following activity
- Migraine (wrap a cold cloth around your forehead)
You can purchase a cold compress or a chemical cold pack however there are cheaper DIY options at home. A cold compress can be made by filling a plastic bag with frozen vegetables or ice and wrapping it in a dry cloth. Or alternatively, you can immerse the affected area into a cold (but not freezing) water.
Applying heat to an inflamed area will dilate the blood vessels, promote blood flow, and help sore and tightened muscles relax. By improving your blood circulation through heat, you can help eliminate the build up of lactic acid waste occurs after some types of exercise.
Heat therapy is usually more effective than cold at treating chronic muscle pain or sore joints caused by arthritis.
Heat Therapy is useful for relieving:
- strains and sprains
- tendonitis, or chronic irritation and stiffness in the tendons
- warming up stiff muscles or tissue before activity
- relieving pain or spasms relating to neck or back injury, including the lower back
- prevent some types of headaches (when applying heat to your neck)
A simple hot bath can relieve some types of pain. Ideally you should have the water between 33 and 37.7 degrees.
There are many heat patches and products available online, however a bath, hot water bottle or wheat bag in the microwave can provide great, effective treatment.
When should I use both?
Repetitive strain injuries can take a long time to heal and by contrasting heat/ice therapies can relieve pain.
A combination of hot/cold therapy can help people with conditions such as:
- plantar fasciitis
- shin splints
- carpal tunnel syndrome
- tennis elbow
- achilles tendinitis
- runner’s knee
Heat and cold treatment may not be suitable for people with diabetic neuropathy or another condition that reduces sensations of hot or cold, such as Raynaud’s syndrome, or if they are very young or old, or have cognitive or communication difficulties.
It may be hard to know when the heat or cold is excessive in these cases.
If you are unsure about using these treatments, organise a time to see a health professional. If you have tried these therapies and still have chronic pain, it may be time to visit an Osteopath.