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Cold vs Hot Therapy: How to Use Them and When

By February 16, 2021Physiotherapy

Cold and hot applications to injured areas are typical go-to treatments and can be extremely useful in alleviating several ailments from strained muscles to arthritis. However, knowing whether to apply cold or hot treatments (or a mixture of both) to affected areas can be a bit confusing.

Here’s what is important to know in terms of cold and hot applications and when to use them.

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy can help soothe discomfort, increase mobility and relax healing tissues. There are typically two types of heat therapy:

Convection heat (or moist heat) may include applications such as steamed towels, damp heating packs, or hot baths.
Conducted heat therapy (or dry heat), including application methods such as heating pads or saunas. There are also professional heat therapy treatments that can be applied, such as ultrasound.

How to Apply Heat Therapy

Unlike cold therapy, heat therapy is most effective when applied for a reasonable amount of time. Typically, for ailments like minor stiffness, an application of heat for 15-20 minutes will help relieve the discomfort. Moderate or severe pain may require longer sessions of heat applications. Heat applications of warm baths, for example, could potentially last between 30 to 45 minutes.

Does Heat Therapy Work for Everyone?

There are certain cases where it’s not a good idea to apply heat therapy. For example, if the area to be treated is bruised or swollen, cold therapy is recommended. Heat therapy should also not be used over open wounds.

People who are pregnant, suffer from heart disease (or hypertension), or have pre-existing health conditions may cause adverse complications and therefore, should consult a physician prior to using heat-based therapy.

Cold Therapy

Cold therapy will reduce blood flow to a particular area and help reduce peripheral inflammation and swelling that may lead to pain (especially around joints or tendons). Applying cold therapy can also reduce pain by slowing nerve activity.

There are different ways to apply cold therapy, including:
• Ice packs or frozen gel packs
• Ice massages
• Ice baths

How to Apply Cold Therapy

When applying cold treatments at home, avoid applying frozen items directly to the skin, as this could potentially damage tissues. It’s best to try a cold treatment as soon as possible after an injury.

Cold therapy should only be used for much shorter periods, and applied several times a day. 10-15 minutes is the ideal length of time for a cold therapy session. Cold therapy should not be applied for more than 20 minutes in one sitting. Elevating the area will also help you achieve the best cold therapy results.

Does Cold Therapy Work for Everyone?

Cold therapy isn’t a good idea for everyone. Individuals with sensory disorders such as diabetes (that prevent them from feeling certain sensations) should not use cold therapy. Patients may not feel the damage done to the area. It should also be avoided if you are trying to treat stiff muscles or joints or if you have poor circulation.

In conclusion, as a general rule, use heat for muscle pain or stiffness and cold for acute injuries, inflammation, or swelling. However, if you are injured, it’s always a good idea to see a doctor to get assessed and have a professional advise how to best heal.

Treatments such as massage therapy or physio may also help your body heal after an injury. If you would like to set up a consultation to see how we can help, give us a call. We’re happy to answer your questions and advise on treatment options that will work best for you.