Pain! Just the name is enough to make you wince! It is an unpleasant sensation, whether mild, moderate, or pure agony. The first thought that may come to your head when you want relief from pain is how some warmth, or on the contrary, a cool touch might help. 

Heat and cold therapy are used to relieve pain associated with different types of conditions and injuries, whether it is arthritis, muscle spasms, back pain, swollen joints, or a stiff neck. There are many injuries for which both heat and cold therapy prove to be effective. 

The tricky part is knowing what situations call for heat therapy, and which demand cold therapy. 

Let’s start with learning about the effects of heat and cold therapy, and how each works on your body.

Heat Therapy

Heat helps blood vessels to dilate, which in turn increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the affected area. This helps with better healing, increased muscle flexibility, as well as quick regeneration of the damaged tissues. 

In addition, heat reduces joint stiffness and the increased flow of blood also provides nutrients, oxygen, and proteins to the area.

How to Use Heat Therapy?

Heat therapy can be applied in two ways: 

  • Dry Heat: It is also known as conducted heat therapy and includes heating pads, dry heating packs, hot water bottles, heat wraps, and saunas. 

  • Moist Heat: It is also known as convection heat and includes hot baths, steamed towels, and moist heating packs. 

Cold Therapy 

Cold therapy reduces blood flow to an injured area by constricting blood vessels. This can reduce the inflammation (redness and swelling) that causes pain, especially around a joint or a tendon (a strong flexible tissue that connects your muscles to your bones). 

Cold therapy can temporarily reduce nerve activity, which provides a soothing effect. The reduced nerve activity numbs sore tissues and slows down pain messages being transmitted to your brain.

Interestingly, the “rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) treatment” is a standard protocol for sports injuries.

How to Use Cold Therapy?

Cold therapy can be applied in a number of different ways, including:

  • Ice packs

  • Frozen wet towel

  • A bag of ice or frozen vegetables

  • Ice baths 

  • Coolant sprays

When to Use Which Therapy? 

Heat Therapy: Heat therapy is generally used for chronic muscle pain or sore joints, for example, pain caused by arthritis. For chronic pain, heat therapy helps oxygenated blood with nutrients reach the affected area, regenerate the dead cells, and promote the healing process. 

It also reduces the stiffness which generally accompanies a long-term injury. Heat therapy should utilize warm temperatures instead of hot ones. Also, heat therapy should not be applied to an area with an open wound or bruised and swollen areas.

Cold Therapy:  During acute (sudden and short-term) injuries, blood rushes to the area and it may become red and swollen. Cold therapy works the best in such cases to reduce the blood supply to the area and bring down the redness and swelling.

Cold therapy also helps to make the area numb and thus produces a soothing effect on the area. Cold therapy should not be used if you have poor circulation or for stiff muscles or joints. Further, a frozen item should not be directly applied to the skin as it can result in skin damage. 

There are some conditions, such as back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia (widespread muscle pain and tenderness), where both heat and cold therapy can help relieve pain.

If your pain or discomfort becomes worse following either therapy, do not continue to apply heat or cold. If your pain persists for a few days after the use of either therapy, contact a doctor for medical advice. 

Disclaimer: This article is written by the Practitioner for informational and educational purposes only. The content presented on this page should not be considered as a substitute for medical expertise. Please "DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE" and seek professional help regarding any health conditions or concerns. Practo will not be responsible for any act or omission arising from the interpretation of the content present on this page.