We’ve all experienced those pesky aches and pains that life throws our way – from minor bumps, bruises and sprains to ongoing discomfort.
It can be tough to navigate the best way to soothe these pains, whether to choose the cooling embrace of ice or the comforting warmth of heat. But fear not!
Blake Baxter, a performance coach at the Banner Sports Medicine High Performance Center, helps us unravel the mystery of understanding when to use cold therapy and opt for heat therapy to find much-needed relief.
Ice for acute injuries
When dealing with a new or acute injury or pain, ice (or cryotherapy) is your best friend. You should apply ice within approximately 72 hours (about 3 days) of the injury, especially when there’s edema (fluid buildup).
“Ice works by causing the blood vessels in the affected area to constrict or narrow, which reduces overall circulation and dampens the inflammatory response,” Baxter said. “In simpler terms, it helps reduce swelling and fluid buildup, bringing much-needed relief.”
When in doubt, here’s when to use ice therapy:
- Migraines and headaches
- Bumps, sprains and strains
- Slip and falls
Avoid using cold therapy if you have a chronic injury and open wounds. Talk to your health care provider if you have one of the following medical conditions:
- Raynaud’s disease (impaired circulation)
- Urticaria (cold-induced hives)
- Neuropathic problems like diabetic neuropathy
- Peripheral vascular disease
How to use ice therapy
- Apply an ice pack, bag of frozen vegetables or cold washcloth to the affected area.
- Use a layer, like a thin towel, in between the ice and your skin. Placing ice directly on your exposed skin can cause frostbite and other damaging effects.
- Set a timer for 15 minutes. Only use ice for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
Heat for soft tissue ailments
Now, let’s turn up the heat on soft tissue ailments. If you’re dealing with muscle soreness, stiffness or similar discomfort, heat therapy (or thermotherapy) is your go-to solution.
“When applied, heat causes blood vessels to dilate, allowing more fluid and blood to interact with the affected tissues,” Baxter said. “This influx of oxygen and healing nutrients help alleviate symptoms and promote the healing process.”
When in doubt, here’s when to use heat therapy:
- Sore muscles
- Muscle spasms
- Chronic pain and stiffness (like back pain)
- Before exercise, activity and/or stretching
- Arthritis (moist heat, like a soak in a warm bath)
Avoid using heat therapy if you have recently suffered an acute traumatic injury, such as a joint sprain, muscle strain or bone fracture, after physical activity or during an infection.
Like cold therapy, heat therapy should not be used on open wounds. Talk to your health care provider if you have circulatory problems.
How to use heat therapy
- Apply a heating pad or hot, wet towel to the affected area.
- Use a layer, like a thin towel, in between the heat source and your skin. Placing heat directly on your exposed skin can overheat the skin or burn the skin.
- Set a timer for 15 minutes. Only use heat for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
- Never leave heating pads or towels on for long periods or while sleeping.
Contrast therapy: The dance between hot and cold
You might wonder, “Can’t you have the best of both worlds?” Well, you certainly can. It’s called contrast therapy. This involves alternating hot and cold treatments.
“This method produces a pumping effect as the body switches between vasodilation (from heat) and vasoconstriction (from cold),” Baxter said. “This pumping effect is particularly useful after exercise as it helps remove inflammation while delivering nutrients to damaged muscles, promoting overall recovery and relief from muscle soreness.”
Today, contrast therapy is often used by athletes and fitness enthusiasts looking for quick recovery from training or pain relief from sore muscles. But you don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy the benefits.
Contrast therapy can be helpful for anyone suffering from various chronic, mental or physical ailments. However, keep in mind that this therapy is not suitable for everyone.
Talk to your health care provider beforehand if you are pregnant, have a heart condition, diabetes, kidney problems or are over 65. Like heat therapy, you should avoid contrast therapy if you have had an acute injury in the last 72 hours (about 3 days).
When to seek medical attention
While ice and heat therapy can be valuable for managing pain, they may not always be the best solution.
Call your health care provider if your symptoms worsen or don’t improve with at-home care. Additionally, if you experience any associated nerve irritation or pain, such as numbness, tingling or burning, don’t hesitate to visit your provider to rule out any serious underlying conditions.
Choosing between ice and heat therapy can be a daunting task, but understanding when to use each can make a world of difference in managing your aches and pains.
Ice is perfect for acute injuries, and heat shines in soothing soft tissue discomfort. For an extra boost, try contrast therapy after exercise to aid muscle recovery.
Remember, everyone’s body is unique. What works for one person may not work for you. Pay attention to what brings you relief and, when in doubt, talk to your health care provider.
To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.