Applying Heat vs. Cold for Pain Relief

When injured, we sometimes rush for ice-cubes and at other times use a hot water bottle. Both give us relief from pain. These are common ways to treat injuries that we use in our day to day life but it is important to understand when to use which method. Let’s understand heat & cold therapy for pain relief better.

Cold Therapy: You may be familiar with the use of ice packs or frozen gel packs. Cold therapy can also be applied with coolant sprays and ice baths. More advanced methods of applying cold therapy include cryostretching, cryokinetics and cold therapy chambers. However, let’s first understand the basics of cold therapy.
Also known as Cryotheraphy, cold therapy works on the basis of reducing blood flow by narrowing blood vessels. When blood flow to the injured area is reduced, swelling and nerve activity are also reduced.

When the nerve endings are numbed there is pain relief. This method is often used to calm inflamed tissues around a joint or tendon. The most common use of cold therapy is for immediate injuries such as muscle pulls or swollen ankles.

Cold therapy reduces nerve activity. It is therefore important not to use it if a patient suffers from a sensory disorder or diabetes. These patients may not be able to feel if any damage is being done. Another situation in which to avoid cold therapy is when your muscles and joints feel stiff. Be careful while applying cold therapy because it could result in skin, tissue or nerve damage if applied incorrectly. Also if your injury hasn’t improved in 48hours time, visit a doctor.

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Heat Therapy: Heat therapy or Thermotherapy on the other hand works on the basis of improving blood flow to the injured area. This can help increase flexibility and the temperature of the injury which can relax the muscles and heal injured tissues.

When applying heat therapy, the focus is to aim for ‘warm’ temperature as opposed to ‘hot’ temperature. Heat therapy can be applied as ‘conducted’ heat therapy also known as Dry Heat. This could even include a sauna or a heat pack. Convection heat therapy or Moist Heat includes things such as steamed towels. Professional heat therapy includes things such as the heat from an ultrasound.

Heat therapy is usually not used when there is an open wound and swelling. It is however used in different scenarios. For example it could be used to treat one particular injury or area. It could also be used to treat an entire region of the body or the whole body itself. Heat therapy is often used for chronic pain.

When applying heat therapy the most obvious precaution is the temperature being applied. As mentioned above the therapy needs to be warm and not hot. Too much heat can burn the skin. If the patient has an infection, heat therapy could increase the chances of it spreading. Heat packs on specific local injuries should not be applied for more than twenty minutes at a time. If the injury doesn’t improve in a couple of days, a visit to the doctor is required.

Knowing how both methods work increases the effectiveness of treatment. In some situations a combination of the two is required. This is called contrasting therapy and can be very effective. Both therapies can cause minor damage if done wrong but major relief if done right. At the Spinalogy Clinic we will help you determine which treatment to use and in what measure.