Do you know what to do when you when you injure yourself? Heat and cold therapies work wonders for sudden or chronic injuries or pain – you just have to know which will work best for what application. We explain the differences and include anecdotal input from Mandi Susman, long time runner and big fan of R.I.C.E.
Heat therapy and cold therapy (sometimes referred to as cryotherapy) are both safe, effective, and drug-free ways to manage pain. These simple solutions are often overlooked, perhaps because we aren’t sure when to use heat and when to cool. The rule of thumb is that heat therapy is best suited for use in chronic (long-standing) pain situations, and cold therapy is best suited for use in acute (rapid onset or short-lived) pain situations.
Heat Therapy is best for chronic pain and other long-standing problems such as:
- Chronic aches
- Poor circulation
- Joint pain
Heat therapy works by increasing circulation and tissue temperature, drawing nutrients into the area to assist in the recovery and the healing process. If you do not have inflammation or swelling, heat therapy is your best bet.
How do I apply heat therapy?
An easy way to get some homemade heat therapy is by appling a hot, wet towel for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Be sure to use a few layers between the heat source and your skin to prevent burns. If you prefer store bought heat packs, be sure to read the directions carefully.
Cold Therapy is best for acute pain, and rapid onset or short-lived problems such as:
- Sudden pain
Cold therapy reduces tissue damage because it causes the blood vessels to narrow and slows the rate of blood flow. This natural reaction also slows down the body’s inflammatory response to the injury. Cold temperatures also slow electrical impulses in the nerves, which transmit pain sensations to the brain. If you have sharp, sudden pain, or muscle spasms, cold therapy is the perfect solution to help you feel better.
How do I apply cold therapy?
Place a source of cold on the affected area for 10 minutes while elevating the impacted area, and then allow the skin to return to normal temperature (typically about 20 minutes) before icing again. This method of relief is known as R.I.C.E. therapy (Rest. Ice. Compress. Elevate.). If you’re using coldfront, the palm packs will last long enough to get the maximum benefit, and they will recool within the coldfront kit after 20 minutes.
Please note that while coldfront lasts only as long as it should, other cold therapy products can cause more harm than good. By leaving cold on an injury for longer than 10 minutes, your body triggers the “hunting response.” During the hunting response, blood flow increases once again. This surge in blood flow increases the amount of nutrient rich blood and oxygen to the tissue. In normal circumstances, these nutrients are essential in limiting the death of cells in body tissue. When an injury is present, this increased blood flow response can actually lead to more pain and swelling.
Mandi: Runners often ask the question: “Should I use heat or cold for nagging injuries?” – a valid question because they frequently have pain after a run, but it’s a recurring pain so it may not be completely obvious if heat or cold is appropriate. While I am not a doctor, I have been a runner for over 30 years and have had my share of injuries and trips to the trainer and doctor! I am happy to share my personal experience.
Ice therapy is almost always recommended for ongoing issues like plantar fasciitis, shin splints and IT Band Syndrome because they are generally an inflammation of a connective tissue and cold therapy is the recommended treatment for inflammation. I have had plantar fasciitis in each foot and found that using my coldfront palm pack in my socks with my feet up on the coffee table while I watch TV works quite well. I use the wicking cloth so the pack is not directly on my skin and the sock holds it perfectly in place. Just a few sessions throughout the day usually is enough to keep the pain away and actually heal the injury.
Thanks for the great input, Mandi!
The next time you have pain, consider the source of your pain and remember heat therapy for chronic issues and cold therapy for acute issues. If you apply heat when you should be using cold, you could make matters worse but cold therapy will not make the issue worse if used to treat chronic issues.
Do you use hot or cold therapies? Please share how and why!
“When to Use Hot and Cold Therapy.” Web log post. Http://www.urmc.rochester.edu. University of Rochester Medical Center, n.d. Web. 14 May 2013. < http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=4483>.
“Cold Compression Therapy.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 05 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 May 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_compression_therapy>.
Anderson, Owen. “Effects of Cryotherapy.” Weblog post. Effects of Cryotherapy. Sports Injury Bulletin, n.d. Web. 15 May 2013. <http://www.sportsinjuryclinic.net/treatments-therapies/cryotherapy-cold-therapy/effects-cryotherapy-cold-therapy>.