Applying heat or cold for pain relief may sound like a great treatment. Despite how good it may feel, heat or cold may not be the most efficient way to promote healing always. Besides, how do you know when to use cold and when to use heat for pain relief? This age-old question can be answered best after taking into account the type of pain (acute versus chronic) and the timing of treatment (before or after the workout).
Heat or cold for pain relief can be applied to everything from arthritis to pulled muscles to inflammation. Treating pain with hot and cold can be extremely effective for a number of different conditions and injuries. Additionally, its simple and less expensive. The tricky part is knowing what situations calls for hot, and which calls for cold. Sometimes a single treatment will even include both.
As a general rule of thumb, heat helps soothe stiff joints and relax muscles. Cold helps numb sharp pain and reduce inflammation.
Consider heat or cold for pain relief
Heat therapy works by improving circulation and blood flow to a particular area due to increased temperature. Increasing the temperature of the afflicted area even slightly can soothe discomfort and increase muscle flexibility. Heat therapy can relax and soothe muscles and heal damaged tissue. This makes it appropriate for musculoskeletal conditions, such as arthritis and old muscle strains or sprains.
Types of heat for pain relief
There are two different types of heat therapy: dry heat and moist heat. Both types of heat therapy should aim for “warm” as the ideal temperature instead of “hot.”
- Dry heat includes sources like heating pads, dry heating packs, and even saunas. This heat is easy to apply.
- Moist heat includes sources like steamed towels, moist heating packs, or hot baths. Moist heat may be slightly more effective as well as require less application time for the same results.
When applying heat therapy, you can choose to use local, regional, or whole body treatment. Local therapy is best for small areas of pain, like one stiff muscle. You could use small heated gel packs or a hot water bottle if you only want to treat an injury locally. Regional treatment is best for more widespread pain or stiffness, and could be achieved with a steamed towel, large heating pad, or heat wraps. Full body treatment would include options like saunas or a hot bath.
When not to use
There are certain cases not good for heat therapy. Heat is not effective and may be detrimental for cases of acute pain caused by new injuries, such as a sudden sprain or strain to an extremity. Because, heat can increase swelling and inflammation. Also, you cannot use heat therapy for an open wound.
People with certain pre-existing conditions should not use heat therapy. This is due to higher risk of burns or complications due to heat application. These conditions include:
If you have either heart disease or hypertension, ask your doctor before using heat therapy. If you are pregnant, check with your doctor before using saunas or hot tubs.
Applying heat therapy
Before activities that aggravate chronic pain, such as muscle strains. Heat can help loosen tissues and relax injured areas. No more than 20 minutes at a time. Never apply heat while sleeping. Be careful not to burn yourself.
Moderate to severe pain can benefit from longer sessions of heat therapy like warm bath, lasting between 30 minutes and two hours.
However, if you experience increased swelling, stop the treatment immediately. If heat therapy hasn’t helped lessen any pain or discomfort after a week, or the pain increases within a few days, make an appointment to see your doctor.
Cold therapy for pain relief
Cold therapy works by reducing blood flow to a particular area. This can significantly reduce inflammation and swelling that causes pain, especially around a joint or a tendon. It can temporarily reduce nerve activity, which can also relieve pain.
Types of cold for pain relief
There are a number of different ways to apply cold therapy to an affected area. Treatment options include:
- ice packs or frozen gel packs
- coolant sprays
- ice massage
- ice baths
When not to use
People with sensory disorders that prevent them from feeling certain sensations should not use cold therapy at home. Because they may not be able to feel if damage is being done. This includes diabetes, which can result in nerve damage and lessened sensitivity. Cold therapy should also not be used if you have poor circulation.
Applying cold therapy
After an acute injury, such as an ankle sprain, or after activities that aggravate a chronic injury, such as shin splints. Apply cold treatment as soon as possible after an injury.
Use an ice bag with cubed ice, ice pack or ice massage. When using an ice pack that does not have real ice cubes, use a thin towel between the ice pack and the skin to prevent frostbite.
Do not use cold longer than 20 minutes at a time. Use cold therapy for short periods of time, several times a day. More time spent icing does not mean more relief. Be sure the area goes numb, then make sure the skin returns completely back to normal before reapplying. You can elevate the affected area for best results.
Besides, if cold therapy hasn’t helped an injury or swelling within 48 hours, seek medical help.