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Cold and Hot Therapy: When to Use Ice, When to Use Heat

Posted by Andrea Hamel

March 10, 2016 at 2:11 PM

It has been a long-held fact that applying ice and heat can help provide pain relief and facilitate the healing of injuries. However, ice and heat should not be used interchangeably; each therapy has its own unique benefits but when used one after the other, users fail to utilize the unique benefits of either. In general, cold therapy is reserved for new injuries while heat therapy will help sooth away reoccurring aches and pains. So when is it time to use heat and when is it time to use ice in hot and cold therapies?

hot vs cold therapy

Heat Therapy

When heat is exposed to the body, it serves to open up blood vessels, increasing blood flow that brings in oxygen and other nutrients to the area. This, in turn, will help reduce paint in joints and relax sore muscle, tendons, and ligaments. The warmth can also help to decrease painful muscle spasms and increases the range of motion in a joint by relaxing tight muscles.

How is it Applied?

When applied to a sore area, heat can be applied with either dry or wet sources. While dry heat sources may dry the skin, it is the preferred heat source for those who need to maintain a consistent temperature for a length of time. Alternatively, wet heat sources are difficult to maintain a consistent temperature, but the moist heat penetrates the skin better to sooth deeper aches. Heat can be applied via electric or microwavable heating pad, hot water bottle, gel packs, and in hot bathes. For multiple injuries or those that span a large area, many athletes have found relief through the use of saunas for widespread, penetrating wet heat.

Tips for Using Heat Safely

  •  Heat should never be applied directly to the skin. Instead, any heat therapy device should be wrapped in a thin protective towel.

  • Do not apply heat for longer than 20 minutes without consulting a physician or physical therapist.

  • Do not use heat therapy if the area is swollen. Cold therapy should be used first to reduce the swelling.

  • Do not use heat on open wounds or stitches, it will increase the risk of bleeding.

  • When using an electric heating pad, it may be tempting to lie down and enjoy the relief. However, you risk falling asleep and burning yourself.

Cold Therapy

Unlike heat, cold slows down blood flow to an injury. This, in turn, will reduce pain and swelling in the area. Cold therapy is typically used immediately after an injury has occurred to reduce inflammation and help facilitate healing. Heat therapy should follow in the days after the swelling has subsided and if any aching persists.

How is it Applied?

There is only one source of cold. Traditionally, cold is applied via ice or gel packs while elevating an injury. However, alternative sources like snow, cold water, or even packs for frozen vegetables can be used providing the injury has no open wounds or stitches in the skin. Cold therapy should be used for 24 to 48 hours after the initial injury and is particularly effective on sprains, strains, and bruises.

Tips for Using Cold Safely

  • As with heat, never use cold directly on the skin, wrap the cold therapy device in a thin towel before applying to the skin.

  • The application of cold should be left on for no longer than 20 minutes so as to not completely restrict the blood vessels. Cold therapies can be applied again after 10 minutes with the device removed.

Have a new or old injury that you think may need a little love from hot or cold therapy? Contact us today to see what we can recommend for your unique pain relief needs to help you naturally recover and get back out there to do what you love.

Topics: Hot Therapy, Cold Therapy

    

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