What is Better for Your Pain? Heat vs. Cold Therapy

Heat vs. Cold Therapy

This, right here, is the million-dollar question. Chances are, this question has plagued you for years, and you have just decided to follow your instincts when your neck starts aching again. 

You do not have to do that anymore, as it is time for you to get answers and start applying your ice and heat packs correctly. Not only will you be able to add to your book of random facts, but you will also be able to alleviate your pain more efficiently. 

Let’s get right into it.

Cold Therapy

Also known as cryotherapy, cold therapy is the use of ice packs or any form of ice for treatment. As a rule of thumb, ice therapy is used for acute injuries, pain, inflammation, and swelling.

The way cold therapy works is by reducing blood flow in a particular area through the constriction of blood vessels and reduction of nerve conduction. These activities can reduce pain, inflammation, and swelling in a particular area.

Types of Cold Therapy

  • Ice baths and ice massage
  • Coolant sprays
  • Cold therapy chambers
  • Cryokinetics- combines cold treatment and exercise.
  • Cryostretching- combines cold and stretches to reduce muscle spasms.

Reusable Ice Packs

This is the most commonly used form of cryotherapy; it may also be the cheapest option. When you scrape your knee or sprain your elbow, it is just easier to bring out your gel pack from the freezer than to book an ice massage session. 

It also helps that there are different types of ice packs. They are:

  • Gel Ice Packs

This is a personal favorite, and it won’t be surprising if the same goes for everyone. Gel ice packs, as you may have guessed, contain different types of gel, depending on the manufacturer. These kinds of packs like those from Hampton Adams usually retain their soft, slush form after freezing. This makes it easy for them to be used on different body parts in different ways. In addition, they can be used; otherwise, as heat packs, all you have to do is pop them in a microwave.

These packs are good at maintaining their coldness for hours. Also, their versatility is a big plus. Apart from the fact that they can work as heat packs, they also come in various shapes and sizes. 

They can also be reused, which makes them long-term investments.

The only downside to gel ice packs is that they can not be used in case of emergencies, especially outside the house. This is because they require some hours of refrigeration before they can be used.

Buying Hampton Adams reusable gel packs is a long-term investment because they can work as both hot and cold packs. In each form, it is effective, comfortable, and leak-free. 

  • Instant Ice Packs

No type of ice pack can rival instant ice packs when it comes to emergencies. Instant ice packs do not require any form of refrigeration; you only need to shake them vigorously to activate them. They are also light and convenient to come around.

These packs work quickly and efficiently but don’t last long; they can not retain their coldness for too long. They also lack versatility; they usually come in the same shape and can not conform to the body’s contours. 

One downside is that they cannot be reused because once activated; they can not be deactivated.

  • Clay Ice Packs

These are the heaviest kinds of ice packs because they contain naturally weighty clay. This is the biggest disadvantage to a clay ice pack- its weight. This makes it difficult to carry it around, making it unsuitable for emergencies. Moreover, it requires long hours of refrigeration.

Generally, clay takes longer to freeze than gel. It, however, retains its slush form after freezing, like gel packs. It can also retain its cold temperature for a long time because of the dense arrangement of its particles. Clay ice packs are probably the most environmentally-friendly and non-toxic type of ice pack. They are also versatile and can conform to different body parts.

Clay ice packs, however, can dry up in direct heat or sunlight.

  • Homemade Ice Packs

Homemade ice packs are good alternatives if you are trying to cut down costs. There are many ways of making ice packs with ingredients that you can easily find in your home. 

Saltwater is one of the most commonly used ingredients for a homemade ice pack. All you need is a freezer bag, salt, and some water. The good part of this is that it stays soft and slushy after refrigeration.

You can also use the insides of a clean diaper, corn syrup, alcohol, rice grains, etc. Each ingredient can be put separately in a freezer bag to make DIY ice packs.

Application of Cold Therapy

Do not apply ice directly to your skin because this can cause frostbite and even nerve or tissue damage. 

If you are using an ice pack, wrap it in a clean towel before application. 

The duration for which you apply cold therapy is also important. Ice packs should only be applied for about fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. 

Applying ice therapy for too long can make you go numb and damage your nerves. As you know, the lower the temperature, the slower the blood circulation. 

If you keep it on for too long, you can cut off blood from a particular part. Ice baths and massages can take about thirty minutes, but anything longer than that can be dangerous.

Ice packs are best used with other forms of therapy because they can not fix injuries by themselves. Rest and elevation will go a long way in improving the situation of things. 

The RICE technique, which is short for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation, is a good way of combining other methods with ice therapy.

If you notice the pain getting worse with the use of ice therapy, you should stop the application and see a doctor. 

Also, if it does not get better in a few days, you should do the same thing so that your doctor can offer other treatment options or do a re-assessment.

When to Avoid Cold Therapy

Anyone with diabetes, arthritis, or any other sensory disorder affecting sensitivity and nerve conduction should avoid using cold therapy. Using cold therapy with such conditions can cause damage that won’t be noticed until it is done. 

If you have stiff muscles or poor circulation, do not use cold therapy, as it will only worsen things. Cold is designed to reduce blood circulation and this will not be beneficial for stiff muscles that require blood.

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy is often used for muscle pain and stiffness, possibly caused by bad posture or overuse. It works by improving blood flow to a particular place due to the increase in temperature caused. 

This works the same way ice therapy reduces blood flow by reducing the temperature. Increased temperature can also soothe muscles, relax them, and increase their flexibility.

Types of Heat Therapy

There are two types of heat therapy:

  • Moist heat: This is also known as convection heat, and it is obtained from sources like hot baths, steamed towels, and moist heating packs. This type of heat therapy is considered more effective and less time-consuming.
  • Dry Heat: This is also known as conducted heat therapy and is obtained from sources like dry heating packs, heating pads, and saunas. The heat from an ultrasound is also considered heat therapy.

Application of Heat Therapy

Heat therapy can be applied locally, regionally, or to the whole body. Local application is best used when the affected area is small, like a stiff muscle from a sore neck. In this case, you can just place a small heated gel pack or a warm towel on the neck.

A regional application can be used when the injured area is slightly larger. A steamed towel, heat wraps, or large heating pad can be used.

Full body treatment is best when you have several areas you are trying to tackle at once. A sauna or hot bath can be used for full-body heat therapy.

Heat therapy, unlike cold therapy, can be applied for a longer time. You can apply for any time between fifteen minutes and two hours. The amount of time spent depends on the kind of pain and its severity. A full-body treatment, for instance, may take up to two hours. 

Do not employ hot temperatures; rather, use reasonably warm ones. Extremely hot temperatures can lead to skin burns and an increased risk of infection. 

Stop the application immediately if you notice your skin getting red or swollen.

When to Avoid Heat Therapy

Heat therapy should not be applied to bruised, swollen, or open wounds. 

Also, some conditions like dermatitis, vascular diseases, deep vein thrombosis(DVT), diabetes, and multiple sclerosis can worsen from applying heat. 

Furthermore, if you have hypertension or heart problems, see your doctor before booking an appointment at the sauna.

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