Heat Vs Ice
Heat therapy (thermotherapy) or ice therapy (cryotherapy) are often advised by health professionals for aching pains or injuries. This information provided is for general educational purposes only. If you are still in doubt whether to use heat or ice it is recommended that you should seek the advise from your health professional or doctor.
Never apply extreme heat or ice directly to an open wound or bony protrusions – a damp cloth under the heat or ice can help protect skin.
Heat / Thermotherapy involves the application of heat such as the use of a hot water bottle, warm bath or heat pack that can be heated in the microwave.
Ice / Cryotherapy involves the application of cold, e.g. cold water bottle from the fridge, ice pack or bag of frozen peas.
Some patient’s may alternate between cold and heat therapy. For example, cold therapy within the first 48 hours of injury can help reduce inflammation and blood flow to the injured site, then heat therapy to help promote the blood circulation in some cases of chronic muscle pain. Alternating between heat and ice therapy may also help in certain cases of induced muscle pain due to exercise.
Cold / Cryotherapy
The aim of cold therapy is to decrease the blood circulation to the injured site to help minimise swelling, tissue damage and inflammation due to the heat being generated from the injured tissues. It acts similar to a local anaesthetic by reducing the pain signals to the brain by numbing irritable injured tissues. So, its primary role is to help provide pain relief rather than tissue repair.
Benefits of Cold Therapy
It can be very beneficial during the first initial 48 hours of an injury as well as treating other conditions such as inflamed muscles and or swollen joints. It may also be a beneficial treatment for arthritic conditions e.g. osteoarthritis, gout, or in the presence of a tendinopathy injury due to a tendon irritation post exercise and during an acute muscle strain injury.
It is generally recommended not to apply ice for longer than 15-20 minutes at a time as the blood vessels may stop constricting and begin to dilate.
If you have symptoms of arthritis e.g. osteoarthritis, it is recommended that you should apply an ice therapy pack for 10 minutes followed by a 10 minute interval before reapplying the ice pack.
Certain injuries that may not be recent, or if the inflammation of the problem area is deep within the body tissues, a superficial cold compress pack will be less effective due to the distance from the cold compress pack to the underlying problem area.
Heat / Thermotherapy
Heat therapy helps blood vessels by encouraging an increase in blood flow, if applied to a sore or tight muscle it can help reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation. This can be typically beneficial following a high intensity training or exercise workout session, as it helps transport lactic acid and toxins away from the fatigued muscles to help improve the flexibility of tight tissues. Heat therapy may also provide some temporary relief for certain individuals that suffer with chronic sore joints or muscle pain conditions e.g. caused by arthritis. The effectiveness of the heat therapy will also depend on the depth of the tissue being treated and may be less effective if the affected tissue is deep within the body, as the heat will have further to travel.
Common Types of Heat Therapy
A 2 litre long hot water bottle that comes with a plush designed cover to help protect the skin from burning, ideal for areas like the neck, waist, back and legs.
Heat compress wraps and safe devices such as electrical heat pads.
Bathing the affected area in water between temperatures of 92⁰-100⁰ Fahrenheit or 33⁰-37.5⁰ Celelsius may also have a therapeutic effect.
Heated paraffin wax treatments or over the counter pharmaceutical rubs and patches that contain capsicum. If in doubt speak to your GP or pharmacist for advise first.
Dry or moist heat packs, these vary: Some dry heat therapy packs may last up to 8 hours whereas certain moist heat packs may only last up to 2 hours. It has been suggested that moist heat packs may function more quickly.
Heat therapy is often applied 3 times a day for approximately 20 minutes at a time whereas single dry wraps and patches may often be used continuously unless otherwise advised by your doctor or health professional. The heat therapy temperature being applied should always be comfortable and not burn.
Conditions & Uses for Heat Treatments
Heat treatments can have a therapeutic effect to help alleviate:-
General muscle tension or spasm relating to an injury e.g. neck (that may lead to headaches), shoulder back and calf pain etc.
Arthritic conditions e.g., osteoarthritis to help ease painful knees, fingers and or hands.
To help promote blood flow in stiff or tight muscles prior to activity.
Learn more about:
If you have cardiovascular problems or high/low abnormal blood pressure – consult your GP or health professional.
If you have Raynaud’s syndrome, experience reduce sensation in certain areas of the body or have been diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy, cold or heat therapy treatments may not be suitable.
To date the research in the effectiveness of cold and heat therapies is still not fully understood, however when applied safely, the risk of adverse effects remains low when applied to a body part. People that suffer with chronic or non-specific injuries may prefer to try both heat and cold therapy treatments to find their preferred preference.
It is worth noting that pain and swelling due to inflammation is a normal process of tissue healing. Applying cold therapy will help make you feel more comfortable during this initial period of tissue repair.
Over the counter gels and creams such as topical agents will have a less effect on the circulatory system but can still be useful to promote a numbing effect over the injured site. It is recommended that you should not use topical agents such as gels and creams in conjunction with other ice and heat therapies.
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