Hot or cold? Always a dilemma whenever you are in pain. Generally, heat is used for the treatment of muscles and ice is for inflammation, but truthfully, they can be used for other purposes. Hopefully the following will give you a breakdown of how to get the most out of each method.
Cold therapy is otherwise known as cryotherapy. It is fantastic at reducing inflammation, it very handy for anyone unable to consume anti-inflammatories such as Ibuprofen. It works well as it slows down blood flow to the injured area and it will reduce the risk of tissue damage. The use of cold is also good for nerve problems, as the cold helps slow down nerve conduction.
When we are in pain what happens is the nerves will send signals to the brain letting your body know you are injured, which will present as pain. Ice will slow down this signalling process. Ice can also help manage osteoarthritis, gout, strains and tendonitis. Cold is great for very recent pain and injury. Cold should be applied for approximately 20 minutes in order to utilise the benefits.
Heat therapy is also known as thermotherapy. Heat promotes blood flow, therefore is great at helping muscles to relax. Heat can be used for the treatment of cramps, chronic muscle pain, osteoarthritis, strains, sprains and tendonitis. Heat can be more comforting when measured up to ice.
Heat is very beneficial for longstanding injuries and conditions. Heat works best when it is applied for approximately 30 minutes. This could be in the form of a hot water bottle, wheat bag, hot bath, hot shower, anything where it can be kept on the skin for that time frame. Wet heat is better, as it will act faster on the muscles.
As you can see already there are a few overlaps. There are occasions where alternating between the two methods will help. Research has proven the use of alternating between hot and cold aids prevention of delayed muscle onset soreness (DOMS) after exercise.
Additionally, lots of biomechanical complaints will require both. Perhaps, a combination of joints, muscles, ligaments and nerves are causing your pain and discomfort, therefore alternating between the two methods could help. The use of alternating between hot and cold works best for sporting injuries and osteoarthritis.
Can you get it wrong?
In some cases, yes. Picking the wrong method can sometimes make the injury worse and impact the time needed to recover. For example, cold is not good for cramping, blisters, confirmed vascular diseases, hypersensitivity to cold and should not be used before exercises. Heat is not good if the skin is already very hot, if a patient has dermatitis, the area is numb, if there is an open wound or very recent injury.
For a small number of patients living with chronic pain, preference is the best tool for deciding most appropriate method for pain relief.
If you are still unsure which method is best ask yourself these questions to help you decide:-
- How did you hurt yourself?
- When did the pain start? Recently or a while a go?
- Is there history of the complaint? Could the pain have been building?
- Location of the injury? Muscle, joint, nerve pain or other?
- Do I have any pre-existing conditions? E.g. diabetic neuropathy, Raynaud’s etc.