Deciding between hot or cold therapy can be a confusing task. These therapies are often recommended to overcome joint or muscle pain and to aid injury recovery. Sometimes a combination of these therapies, i.e. a hot cold therapy, is also pitched as an effective solution. This combination is often a process of alternating between hot and cold therapy. However, the question remains which therapy is best for you?
An effective way to reach clarity in this regard is to dig deeper and know more about the two therapies, their effects and how they work?
Cold Therapy is also called cryotherapy. It is usually done either with the help of a bottle filled with cold water, a cool pack frozen in a freezer or simply with some cold water. The therapy is most effective when used immediately after sustaining an acute injury, i.e. a sprained ankle or a muscle. It restricts the blood flow to the affected area and numbs the nerve endings, which further helps reduce pain and relieve other symptoms like inflammation and swelling.
Cold therapy should be continued for at least 3 to 5 days following the injury. It helps treat a swollen and inflamed joint or muscle. However, there are some situations where you should avoid cold therapy. It should not be used if there is a risk of cramping or if the affected area is already numb or cold. Cold therapy is also not recommended for open wounds and back pains and also to people who are hypersensitive to cold. In all these situations cold therapy may prove counter-productive and may aggravate the situation.
Hot therapy helps to dilate the blood vessels, promote blood flow, and relax the sore and tightened muscles. It is aimed at relaxation and therefore, also ends up being psychologically reassuring, which further helps to enhance its analgesic properties. Heat therapy, as it is sometimes called, can be given using an electrical heating pad, hot water bottle, hot compress, or a heat wrap.
It is highly effective for treating chronic muscle pain or sore joints caused by arthritis. It is also helpful in cases of strains and sprains, tendonitis, osteoarthritis, warming up stiff muscles or tissue before activity, relieving pain or spasms relating to neck or back, or treating injuries of the lower back. However, hot therapy is not suitable for every injury type. It shouldn’t be used on an injury that might already be hot or fresh. Also, avoid using it on red or inflamed skin or on a person that might be sensitive to heat due to a condition like peripheral neuropathy or something similar.
Many medical professionals recommend a mix of hot and cold therapy for aches and pains caused by muscle tears, overuse injuries, and chronic joint pain. This hot cold therapy should not be used until at least 48 hours after the injury has passed. For the first 48 hours or so, only cold therapy is recommended and after that, you can start alternating between hot and cold therapies. This combination results in the expansion and contraction of blood vessels on the injury site and helps to recover faster. Exercise-induced muscle pain can also be reduced with the help of this hot cold therapy combination.
To sum up, it can be said that cold therapy would work better for immediate post-injury treatment and help reduce swelling, inflammation and pain. Heat therapy, on the other hand, is better suited for relaxing muscles, treating chronic joint pain and achieving better muscle movement. None of them should be applied directly on the human skin and require a layer of protection like a soft towel in between. The benefits and precautions associated with both should be carefully weighed before going with one.