Both heat and cold therapy have benefits in relieving pain but far too often people do not understand when to use which. This causes many people to only utilize one option or the other at a time in their injury when the opposite should be used or when neither is appropriate.
Here’s a brief explanation of how to use hot and cold therapy to treat pain:
Heat therapy should be used to treat muscle pain or stiffness.
In most cases, the longer that heat is applied, the better. But, the duration that one needs to apply the heat is based on the type of and/or severity of the injury.
For very minor tension, short amounts of heat therapy may be sufficient such as 15 to 20 minutes. For more intense injuries, longer sessions of heat may be more beneficial such as 30 minutes to 2 hours, or more.
There are different types of heat therapy that can be applied–dry heat such as electric heating pads and saunas or moist heat such as a hot bath, moist heating packs or steamed towels. You may have to try more than one until you figure out the method that works best. Other options include a heated gel pack, heat wraps or a homemade reusable heat pack using rice.
Cold therapy can effective for the treatment of minor injuries or pain, as well as swelling and inflammation. When used correctly, cold therapy works by reducing blood flow to a particular area. This can significantly reduce the inflammation and swelling that causes pain, especially around a joint or a tendon. It can also temporarily reduce nerve activity, which can relieve pain.
Cold therapy should be applied for short periods of time not to exceed 20 minutes at a time. This is important to prevent nerve, tissue and skin damage. For the best results, it is advised to elevate the affected area.
Like heat therapy, there are several different ways to apply cold therapy. Depending on the location of your injury, one method may work best than another. Here are are some options:
- Cold compresses, such as an ice pack or frozen gel pack
- Ice bath
- Ice massage
There are circumstances and medical conditions that may make heat therapy and cold therapy not suitable for some patients. Additionally, neither therapy should be used in place of professional medical help.
If you have been injured or are experiencing pain, it’s important to get checked by a physician before administering hot or cold therapy on your own. As board-certified orthopedic and sports medicine physicians, the doctors at South Shore Orthopedics can evaluate your symptoms and, if needed, advise you on how to use hot or cold therapy safely and effectively. To schedule an appointment, call (781) 337-5555 or request one online.