Pain Therapy: To Use Heat or Cold

  • April 1, 2022
  • 2 minutes read

Both hot and cold therapy have their place in relieving pain and speeding up recovery. When it comes to pain therapy, this is not only a matter of personal preference, but is very much dependent on the stage and type of injury sustained.

Some Like It Hot

If your pain is associated with sore or stiff muscles, hot therapy is the way to go. The heat helps to relax the muscles and increase the mobility and elasticity of joints. Heat is also great for chronic injuries and pain. Many athletes with chronic injuries use heat therapy before exercise to increase flexibility and stimulate blood flow to the area.

Muscle aches, menstrual cramps or even tummy aches can be eased with the help of a hot water bottle or heat pack. Other options for heat packs are heating pads or heat lamps (dry heat) or a warm bath, a hot water bottle or a wash cloth dipped in warm water (moist heat).

Some Like It Cold

For acute injuries that have occurred within the last 48 hours as the result of sudden trauma such as fall or collision, cold therapy is the best, particularly if it is applied early and often for the first two days. Cold therapy plays an important role in the R.I.C.E (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) approach towards treating an injury.

This is because in a sudden injury such as a sprain, muscle tear or bruise, the surrounding soft tissues are damaged, causing blood to flood the area, resulting in discolouration, swelling and inflammation. A quick application of an ice pack can reduce these symptoms and alleviate the pain.

Apply the ice pack for up to 20 minutes, then remove the pack and wait for 20 minutes before using firm elastic bandage to compress the injured area. To keep swelling to a minimum, it is best to elevate the injury.

Best Of Both Worlds

In some cases, alternating hot and cold therapies can be effective. This is especially the case for the first few days after an acute injury such as a sprained ankle, muscle soreness or tear has stopped swelling and started healing.

The heat from a hot compress causes blood vessels to expand, increasing circulation, which brings an increased flow of oxygen and nutrients to heal the injury. Applying a cold pack then causes the blood vessels to constrict, reducing circulation and slowing down the flow of nutrient-rich blood so that the injured tissues can ‘soak up’ the blood before it moves on.

For many types of chronic pain, such as arthritis, the choice between cold or hot therapy can be an individual choice. It can be helpful to experiment with both and choose the therapy that provides the best relief.

Rule Of Thumb

  • Always protect your skin with a towel to avoid additional injury from excess heat or cold.
  • Do not ice or heat an injured area for more than 20 minutes at a time.
  • If using cold therapy, ice till the area goes numb and take a break. Only re-apply ice again after the skin returns to its normal temperature.
  • Before using either heat or ice therapy, ensure that the skin is dry and free from open cuts and sores.
  • Never use cold or heat if there is visible skin damage and open wounds.

Finally, always seek medical attention should your pain persist, worsen, or start affecting your day-to-day life.

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