The Benefits of Heat and Cold Therapy

If you’ve ever been in a hot bath or Jacuzzi after a hard workout, you know that the water immediately soothes and relaxes sore muscles. And for burns and painful bumps, we’ve all been well-trained to grab a bag of peas from the freezer; we’re well aware that the cold will stop the pain. The efficacy of thermal therapy is nothing new.

For many years, pain sufferers have been using heat and cold therapy techniques to increase or decrease circulation and as a result, manage both pain and inflammation. Thermal therapies are also used by rehabilitation experts to enhance range of motion of players’ injured joints and limbs, making it possible for them to get off the bench and back into the game much faster than ever before. Physical therapists and chiropractors are also well known for leveraging thermal therapies, applying them with great success depending on an injury’s age and the degree to which an injury has already healed.

The popularity of thermal therapies stems from their natural effectiveness in quickly soothing even otherwise difficult to manage ailments such as muscle strains, lower back pain and painful arthritis. Moreover, thermal treatments are inexpensive, easy to use and most importantly, safe. They promote healing and eliminate pain without dangerous surgery or drugs. It has also become quite common to mix thermal therapies with other natural forms of relief, such as acupuncture, manipulation and massage.

Benefits of using cold therapies:

First off, no-one knows yet how exactly cold diminishes pain. The going theory relates to a concept called vaso-constriction, where the use of cryotherapy (a space-age term that really just means using cold as a therapy) helps slow your metabolic rate along with your blood circulation and this combination in turn slows down inflammation and prevents cells from growing old. Though you might be picturing a scene from some futuristic space movie, cryotherapy is just about ice packs, ice-massage and a lot of determination.

For an acute injury (a sprain or bruise or muscle tear) that’s just starting to swell, grab the peas – this class of injury should receive cold only. The effect the frozen peas (or ice pack) has is that it will quickly diminish blood flow by constricting the vessels. That in turn will lead to less muscle spasms and a decrease in inflammation – both of which would have caused more pain. If there is internal bleeding, it will either slow down or stop altogether. Finally, the cold will numb the nerve endings which will help cut the pain even more. A good way to tell whether to apply cold or heat is, if you can see the physical damage such as with a cut or bruise, it needs a cold pack. Otherwise, internal issues like strained muscles need heat. Be careful; if you use heat for an acute condition, you could make it worse.

Never apply ice directly to bare skin – it will burn your flesh. Instead, use a cold pack; there are many purpose-made products on the market, everything from dry chemical packs to bags of liquid you keep in the freezer. Or, you can do what Mom does – wrap a frozen bag of peas in a dish towel. To use the pack, simply lay it over the injury and wait between 15 and 20 minutes. Take it off for 10 minutes and then reapply. Continue that routine until the swelling decreases, or for as long as you need to deal with the pain.

Benefits of using heat therapies:

We all know the value of heat therapy – it can be incredibly soothing and therapeutic and not just for injuries and physical problems. People also use heat to relax and to help themselves concentrate. According to the American Cancer Society, heat can also be used to help treat cancer. In general, heat treatments can be broken down into two principle categories; deep and superficial. The most common is the latter, superficial, meaning ‘on the surface of the skin’, with an enormous amount of home-based treatments and devices on the market. We’ve all seen them too, everything from infra-red heat lamps and electric heating pads, to heat generating massage oils and wax treatments. The former category, deep, is much less common, using high technology like ultrasound and microwave diathermy to heat the deeper layers of your flesh.

In general, heat promotes blood-flow by dilating your vessels and arteries. This increased flow will lead to an increase in synovial fluid which is a natural joint lubricant that enhances range of motion and reduces pain and muscle spasms. Moreover, heat therapy helps eliminate tissue inflammation and congestion and with increased circulation, injured areas will receive much more oxygen and healing nutrients. At the same time, the immune system will have a much less difficult task eliminating wastes and toxins like carbon dioxide and as a result, pain will be diminished.

Obviously, when working with heat, to a much greater degree than cold, you need to be conscious of what you’re doing; it’s very easy to hurt yourself. This is especially so with packs that require heating in a microwave; always watch out for scalding steam and never place anything directly on your flesh without first testing it. Moreover, your first concern for a non-piercing (bloodless) injury should be minimizing inflammation and you can’t do that with heat. Instead, minimize swelling with a cold pack and a few hours later, gradually apply a heat pack to manage the pain.

Contrast therapy:

There have also been numerous studies of late looking at a treatment called ‘contrast therapy’ – using contrasting temperatures as a healing tool, a concept people have been using for thousands of years. When heat is applied directly after cold or vice-versa, it is believed that a physiological effect modifies the body’s nerve centers, blocking the transmission of pain signals from and to the brain. This temporary pain relief is achievable by alternating cold and heat packs or even at your local gym, using the sauna before or after the pool. On the other hand, contrast therapy effectively shocks your system and may not be a good idea for everyone. We recommend consulting a doctor before giving it a try.

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  • Angela Mockford

Angela Mockford

Angela Mockford is the perfect example that it’s never too late to start paving your way toward a healthier and happier life.