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How Does Cold And Heat Therapy Work For Pain Relief

We are used to treating pain in our daily lives with either heat or cold. We apply ice packs for inflammation and swelling, and heat onto parts of our body that are experiencing muscle aches or stiffness. But how exactly does cold and heat therapy work for pain relief, and how do you know when you should be using cold or heat to treat yourself? We take a deeper look and cold and heat therapy for pain relief here. 

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy works by improving the flow of blood to particular areas of our body. Applying increased temperature to a particular area of the body can both increase muscle flexibility of that area and soothe any discomfort. The heat essentially “relaxes” the area of the body, soothing muscles and healing any damaged tissue. 

Heat therapy falls into two categories:

  • Dry heat (also known as “conducted heat”): This is applied through sources such as dry heating packs, heating pads and saunas.
  • Moist heat (also known as “convection heat”): This is applied through moist heating packs, hot baths, or steamed towels. 

Both of the above categories of heat therapy can be performed at home. While preparing your sources of heat, you should ensure that the temperature of your source is warm rather than hot. Also refrain from using heat therapy if you have an infection, as heat can increase the risk of that infection spreading. Also ensure that you do not apply heat to a local area for a prolonged period of time to avoid damage; 20 minutes is the limit.

While applying heat therapy, you can choose to target your whole body or isolated areas:

  • Local therapy: Targets just one specific area of the body, such as a single stiff muscle. Use small heated packs or a hot water bottle.
  • Regional treatment: For widespread pain or stiffness. Use a steamed towel, heat wraps or a large heating pad.
  • Full body treatment: You can visit a sauna or take a hot bath.

If you have the following conditions, you should consult with a doctor before attempting heat therapy:

  • Vascular diseases
  • Diabetes
  • Dermatitis
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Multiple sclerosis

Cold Therapy

Also known as cryotherapy, cold therapy reduces the flow of blood to a specific area of the body. This significantly reduces swelling or inflammation that causes pain, particularly when applied around a tendon or joint. Cold therapy also temporarily reduces nerve activity, which also provides relief from pain.

You can apply cold therapy through different sources, including:

  • Frozen gel packs or ice packs
  • Ice massages
  • Ice baths
  • Coolant sprays

All of the above can be applied at home, but you can also look into professionally-applied methods of cold treatments, which include:

  • Cryokinetics
  • Cryostretching
  • Cold therapy chambers

If you have certain sensory disorders, you should refrain from performing at-home cold therapy, as you may be unable to accurately perceive when the therapeutic effects of cold therapy have ceased and have instead begun to cause damage. An over-exposure to coldness could cause nerve damage or harm to your skin or tissue. Cold therapy should not be performed on stiff muscles or joints or utilized if you have poor circulation. If you have cardiovascular disease, you should also consult your doctor prior to engaging in cold therapy.

Blog Calender Blog UserBy Alex Melen

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