One tactic for reducing aches and pains that many people find effective is temperature therapy—the use of heat and cold to reduce pain in a given area.
Different injuries and conditions lend themselves to hot or cold treatments, and some may be right for both. Here’s a look at when you’ll want to use heat and/or ice.
Basic Facts and Types of Therapies
Heat therapy helps improve circulation and blood flow to an injured area. Even a small increase in temperature can relieve discomfort while improving muscle flexibility for recovery. Heat therapy can also heal damaged tissue.
There are two types of heat therapy:
- 1. Dry heat: Also called conducted heat therapy, this includes heat sources like heating pads, dry heating packs and saunas.
- 2. Moist heat: Also called convection heat, this includes sources such as steamed towels, moist heating packs or hot baths. These might be slightly more effective than dry heat, and they may also require less application time to find the same relief.
In addition, some people find relief from professional heat therapy treatments including heat from an ultrasound.
When using heat therapy, you might choose different methods for local (small areas of pain like a stiff muscle), regional (widespread pain or stiffness) or whole body (saunas and hot baths) treatments.
Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, reduces blood flow to a given area, in turn reducing the inflammation that leads to pain in the first place. It can also temporarily reduce nerve activity.
Several options are available for cold therapy:
- • Ice packs or frozen gel packs
- • Coolant sprays
- • Ice massage
- • Ice baths
- • Cryostretching: Using cold to reduce spasms during stretching
- • Cryokinetics: Combines cold treatment and active exercise
- • Whole-body cold therapy chambers
Never apply frozen items directly to skin, and always try to apply cold therapy as soon as possible after an injury. Use cold therapy several times a day for no more than 20 minutes. For best results, you can elevate the area.
Risks and Side Effects
Keep these tips in mind to avoid minor risks associated with heat therapy:
- • Use “warm” temperatures, not “hot” ones. Too high a temperature can burn the skin.
- • Beware of heat therapy on an infection, as it could increase the risk of infection spreading.
- • Don’t use heat therapy on a single local area for more than 20 minutes at a time.
- • If you experience swelling, stop heat therapy immediately.
- • If heat therapy isn’t helping with pain or discomfort after a week, or pain increases, speak to your doctor.
Beware of the following risks or side effects with cryotherapy:
- • Cold therapy applied for too long or too directly at once can result in skin, tissue or nerve damage.
- • Consult a doctor before using cold therapy if you have cardiovascular disease or heart disease.
- • Beware of side effects like numbness, tingling, redness or irritation of the skin. These are generally temporary.
- • If cold therapy doesn’t improve pain or swelling within 48 hours, contact your doctor.
When Not To Use
Different people find different benefits from hot or cold therapy, and your doctor can also help you make the final determination on what’s right for you. Additionally, here are some specific times when you should not use a given therapy:
Don’t use heat therapy if you have any of the following conditions:
Check with your doctor before using heat therapy if you have heart disease or hypertension, or if you’re pregnant and looking to use a sauna or hot tub.
Don’t use cold therapy if you have conditions or situations including:
- • Sensory disorders: Disorders that prevent people from feeling certain sensations may stop you from being able to feel if damage is being done. Diabetes is one such condition.
- • Stiff muscles or joints
- • Poor circulation
If you’re dealing with persistent aches or pain, your doctor can offer a treatment plan including proper use of heat and cold.
Our orthopedics practice has provided care for over 30 years. Our staff is trained handle a variety of issues, including sports medicine. We care for you and your family with the same state-of-the art techniques we use with BYU and Olympic athletes.
“Treating Pain with Heat and Cold.” HealthLine.com. http://www.healthline.com/health/chronic-pain/treating-pain-with-heat-and-cold#overview1
“Cryotherapy in Pain Management.” MedicineNet.com. http://www.medicinenet.com/cryotherapy/article.htm