Heat Therapy vs. Cold Therapy

Heat therapy, also known as thermotherapy, is a common way to help relieve aches and pains. Knowing when or how to apply heat, as opposed to cold, can sometimes be tricky. This blog will cover both the basics of heat and cold therapy with suggested uses for both and conclude with a more scientific section for those that want to delve a little deeper into how these therapies work.   

Heat Therapy and Its Uses

According to the Arthritis Foundation, if you have a chronic condition like fibromyalgia, arthritis, or lower back pain, try heating things up. Soaking in warm water or applying a heated compress is one of the oldest, cheapest, and safest forms of complementary therapy. Research has shown that heat treatments can loosen stiff joints and relieve achy muscles.  

Here is how it works. When you warm up a sore joint or tired muscle, your blood vessels get bigger. This allows more blood, oxygen, and nutrients to be delivered to the injured tissues. Better circulation means more relaxation for those stiff muscles and joints. 

Here are a few simple ways to heat up your daily routine. 

Take a steamy shower. Start your day right by taking a long, warm shower. The heat of the water will reduce morning stiffness, limber up the body, and increase your range of motion for the daily activity ahead.   Make sure the water is not too hot, particularly if you have heart problems. A healthy temperature is between 92 and 100 degrees. 

Stretch out in the pool. When you have arthritis, a warm pool is the ideal place to strengthen your muscles and increase your flexibility. The water will reduce the force of gravity compressing the joint and offer 360-degree support for sore limbs that have limited range of motion.  Studies show that patients with arthritis and fibromyalgia who participated in warm water exercise programs two or three times a week could move around better and had as much as 40 percent less pain. Do not overdo it. Maximum benefit is reached after about 20 minutes in a warm pool or bathtub.

Apply a warm compress. Buy a heating compress such as the heated foot massager, heated neck collar, or lower back warmer from ILA. Before you stretch or exercise, heat up your hips, back, shoulders, or knees. Rest with the warm compress on the affected area for 20 minutes when you are doing computer work or reading the newspaper. 

Cold Therapy and Its Uses

Healthline states that cold therapy (also called cryotherapy) works by reducing blood flow to a particular area, which can significantly reduce inflammation and swelling that causes pain, especially around a joint or a tendon. It can temporarily reduce nerve activity, which can also relieve pain. You should not use cold therapy on stiff muscles or joints. Further, cold therapy should not be used if you have poor circulation.

There are a few different ways to apply cold therapy to an affected area. Treatment options include ice packs or frozen gel packs, coolant sprays, ice massage, and ice baths.

For home treatment, apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel or ice bath to the affected area. You should never apply a frozen item directly to the skin, as it can cause damage to the skin and tissues. Apply cold treatment as soon as possible after an injury.

Use cold therapy for short periods of time, several times a day. Ten to 15 minutes is fine, and no more than 20 minutes of cold therapy should be used at a time to prevent nerve, tissue, and skin damage. You can elevate the affected area for best results.

People with sensory disorders that prevent them from feeling certain sensations should not use cold therapy at home because they may not be able to feel if damage is being done. This includes diabetes, which can result in nerve damage and lessened sensitivity.

Scientific Overview of Thermotherapy and Cryotherapy

According to Physiopedia, cryotherapy and thermotherapy are useful adjuncts for the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries and soft tissue injuries. Using ice or heat as a therapeutic intervention decreases pain in joint and muscle as well as soft tissues and they have opposite effects on tissue metabolism, blood flow, inflammation, edema, and connective tissue extensibility. Thermotherapy can be used in rehabilitation facilities or at home.

The goal of thermotherapy is to alter tissue temperature in a targeted region over time for the purpose of inducing a desired biological response. Most thermotherapies are designed to deliver the thermal therapy to a target tissue volume with minimal impact on intervening or surrounding tissues.

The treatment depends on the type of application and the type of disease.

There are 3 phases of the healing process: the inflammatory phase, the proliferation phase, and the remodeling phase.

  • The first phase, known as the inflammatory phase, protects the injured area from further injury while the body contains the damaged tissue. During this phase, cryotherapy can help to reduce swelling. Never use heat during this phase because heat increases the blood flow into the injured area and increases the amount of swelling. The inflammatory phase has a duration of 2 days.
  • During the second phase, the proliferation phase, new tissue and scar tissue are formed. Heat can now be applied to the injured area to facilitate the healing process.
  • The third and final phase, the remodeling phase, is the process of returning to health: the restoration of structure and function of injured or diseased tissues. The healing process includes blood clotting, tissue mending, scarring and bone healing. Heat therapy can also be used during this phase.

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