Treating pain with hot and cold compress has been an old tradition in India and is recommended by doctors. These methods can be extremely helpful in controlling pain, inflammation, swelling and stiffness and is an effective and affordable way to treat any type of pain and injury. The tricky part is knowing which compress (hot or cold) to use in what type of situation. The basic rule of thumb is to use a hot compress on chronic muscle pain and stiffness and use a cold compress on inflammation and swelling. Doctors can prescribe a combination of the two therapies depending on your injury.
Lets learn about each therapy in detail and know when to use it.
Heat therapy or thermotherapyApplying heat to an injured area promotes blood flow and increases circulation, even a slightly high temperature can soothe the pain and discomfort and increase muscle flexibility. Heat therapy is ideally used in chronic pain, joint pains and stiffness. It is advised to take a hot shower before doing any physical activity as it relaxes the muscles. Heat therapy should not be applied to acute injuries with inflammation as it is caused by bleeding in the tissue, allowing heat to the injured area will increase the blood flow thus, worsening the situation. Heat therapy should be applied in the following situations:

  • Strains
  • Sprains
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Chronic irritation and stiffness in the tendons
  • Warming up stiff muscles or tissue before activity
  • Relieving pain in case of neck or back injury, including the lower back

Types of Heat TherapyThe temperature of the hot compress should not be burning hot but should be warm. There are different ways in which people apply heat therapy, it can be in the form of:
Dry heat: It includes products like electrical heating pads, hot water bottles and saunas. Dry heat can be applied for up to 8 hours. It is easy to apply.
Moist heat: It includes sources like steamed towels, moist heating packs, or hot baths. It is more effective than dry heat and takes less time to show results.
Heat therapy can be used over a long period of time. It is advised to use heat therapy for 15 to 20 minutes on minor injuries. Moderate to severe injuries require longer sessions of heat therapy like warm baths.
Although heat therapy is a good method of relieving pain, it should not be used in places where the injured area is inflamed, or there are open wounds. Pregnant women and people with diabetes, dermatitis, vascular diseases, deep vein thrombosis, multiple sclerosis (MS) should consult a doctor before applying heat therapy as they are at a higher risk of getting burns and complications.
Too hot thermotherapy can burn your skin, so make sure that the temperature is warm and not too hot. Applying heat in an infected area can increase the risk of the infection spreading. If you cannot see results after applying heat therapy for a week, consult a doctor.
Cold Therapy or cryotherapy
Cold therapy reduces the blood flow to the injured area subsequently, reducing the inflammation and swelling and reducing the risk of tissue damage. It numbs the nerves and slows down the signal of pain receptors to the brain thus acting as local anaesthesia. Cryotherapy is most effective within 48 hours of the injury. It treats a swollen and inflamed joint or muscle. One should never apply, direct ice on the wound as it can do more harm than good. Cold therapy should be applied in cases like:
Cold treatment can help in cases of:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Recent injury
  • Gout
  • Strains
  • Irritation in the tendons following activity
  • Migraine

Types of cryotherapyThere are different ways to apply a cold compress to an injured area. Those include:

  • Cryotherapy products: This includes products like ice packs, coolant sprays and ice massage
  • Cryo stretching: In this case, we use cold temperature to reduce muscle spasms during stretching
  • Cryokinetics: This type of therapy combines cold treatment and active exercise. It is a useful tool in case of ligament sprains
  • Ice baths: This is another form of cryotherapy

For better results, apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel to the injured area several times a day for short periods of time. You should never apply ice for more than 20 minutes as it can damage the nerve, skin and tissues. People with heart disease should consult a doctor before applying a cold compress. If cold therapy did not work within 48 hours, consult a doctor.

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