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Heat Therapy and Ice/Cold Therapy – Which Should You Use?

Heat and cold therapy is useful in treating a wide variety of injuries and conditions, but many people are confused about which type of therapy to use and when. It is very important to understand the proper applications of heat and cold, because applying the wrong kind of treatment can result in a worsening of the condition. Here is some helpful information about and some case-by-case guidelines to using heat therapy and cold/ice therapy.

Why Heat or Cold?

Doctors, physical therapists and even chiropractors use heat and cold therapy in their practices and prescribe them for home usage as well. Both heat and cold therapies work by reducing inflammation, pain and stimulating the body’s natural healing process. Heat therapy, normally done by applying a heating bag or pad, dilates blood vessels and increases circulation, decreases pain, and calms muscle spasms. Cold therapy, contrastingly, is used to diminish swelling by constricting blood vessels and numbing deeper pain. These can be used separately or alternately.

Knowing Which Therapy to Use

Using heat or cold incorrectly can cause more pain and problems. For example, using heat therapy immediately after a traumatic injury such as a sprained ankle dilates the blood vessels, causing swelling of the injured area. This makes it more difficult to tell the exact nature or the injury, increases pain, and slows healing; in these cases, cold or ice therapy is needed to reduce swelling and numb immediate pain. Similarly, using cold therapy in certain cases such as lower back problems or arthritis will increase stiffness and cause more pain, where heat soothes and relaxes.

Sports or Traumatic Injuries

The name ‘sports injury’ can be misleading, any injury sustained while doing something could actually be called a sports injury, whether it is pulling a meniscus while diving to cover a goal in football or twisting an ankle while stepping off a kerb. These injuries are caused by trauma, such as twisting, over-extending, jamming, or other actions. A traumatic injury needs immediate cold therapy, such as with an ice pack or freezer pack, to diminish swelling and pain; then usually alternating heat and cold therapy to deal with swelling, circulation and pain management.

Arthritis Pain

Normal and rheumatoid arthritis causes stiffness, lack of mobility, and above all, pain, in the joints. Sometimes it is isolated to the hands and knees, but people who suffered a lot of joint trauma from sports-type injuries in the past are more prone to regular arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that can become debilitating with time. Both kinds of arthritis can be treated topically with a warm, wet compress, such as a microwave heat pack. The heat decreases stiffness and swelling, increases blood flood to the extremities, and eases pain.

Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain is extremely common, and it has many sources, from poor posture, previous injury or the effects of being overweight or pregnant. The lower back is the anchor of the body, where several skeletal, muscular and nervous (pain) junctions form. This part of the back is a weight-bearing and flexing area, unlike the upper back, which powers the arms and head’s movement. Low-back pain needs to be addressed with alternating heat and cold therapy to decrease swelling and pain, while also increasing circulation and mobility.

Cramps and Muscle Spasms

Cramping occurs when a muscle or group of muscles constrict involuntarily, tightening to the point of extreme pain. Spasms are when the muscles tense up and loosen involuntarily, usually because the brain is “confused” by the conflicting messages that the damaged muscles are sending. The best method of dealing with both of these conditions is with heat therapy, especially moist heat in the form of a microwave heat pack. By applying the pad to the cramping or spastic area, the muscles will relax, normal circulation will resume, and pain will be reduced.

Active people or those who have back problems or arthritis should always be prepared to deal with their issues by keeping a cold pack in the freezer and a heat pack readily available to pop into the microwave. Managing pain, swelling and increasing mobility depends on the proper application of heat and cold therapies.