An effective and proactive method for maintaining a strong body, to help prevent injuries, or to accelerate healing and recovery from a current or prior injury involves combining hot and cold therapy as a daily routine. Applied heat increases circulation by expanding/dilating the blood vessels at the application site (known as vasodilation). It is best-used to relax tight muscles and promote overall flexibility and range of motion. Cold treatments, on the other hand, are best-used to treat inflammation and pain. When cold is applied, the blood vessels at the application site constrict (known as vasoconstriction). To be effective, ice or cold packs should be applied for pain relief immediately following an injury or trauma or following physical activity.
The Benefits of Heat Therapy
Acute injuries happen suddenly. The pain is temporary and subsides as the injury is treated and heals. Swelling or bleeding should subside, however, before applying heat to promote healing. Chronic injuries exist and increase over time. Heat should be applied prior to engaging in physical activity and whenever necessary to help relieve chronic, recurring, pain.
Heat therapy, or thermotherapy, is a routinely-used and effective treatment for sports-related muscle and tissue injuries. It has also proved to be beneficial for treating health-related problems such as arthritis, muscle sprains, strains, and spasms. Heat increases blood flow and circulation, making muscles and tissue more flexible. It helps reduce joint stiffness, pain, and spasms by reducing inflammation and tissue congestion. Heat therapy applied prior to physical activity helps prevent exercise injuries by stimulating blood flow and aiding in muscle “warm-up.” Heat therapy also allows injury rehabilitation activity to begin sooner and the participant to be more fully engaged in it, thus gaining maximum benefits from the activity.
Superficial heat therapies used to treat muscle spasms, menstrual and muscle cramping, and arthritic pain include radiant heat, hydrotherapy, and hot packs. Deep heat therapies used to treat muscle spasms caused by skeletal or joint conditions and rheumatic joint pain include electrically-induced heat from shortwave and microwave diathermy for deep muscle and joint treatments and ultrasound sources.
The Benefits of Cold/Ice Therapy
Applying cold to an injury or trauma decreases blood flow and helps reduce pain, swelling, inflammation, and bruising. Ice applied to the injured area immediately afterwards slows the bleeding and swelling.
Physicians most often recommend cryotherapy, or ice therapy, as an injury prevention as well as a recovery treatment. Ice therapy cools the tissue thus reducing pain and muscle spasms. Ice should be applied within the first 24 hours following an injury. The immediate application of ice to the injured area decreases the cells’ metabolic rate. Limiting the risk of post-injury cell death ultimately helps prevent long-term damage.
Regardless if there is apparent evidence of bleeding or swelling, cold/ice is recommended to lessen the effects of wear, tear, and unseen long-term damage. For example, athletes soak in ice baths to cool down inflamed or over-worked muscles, joints, and tissues following strenuous sports activities. Cryotherapy is also recommended to reduce pain and inflammation from sprains, tennis elbow and shin splints, as well as everyday toothaches, migraine headaches, and minor home and sun burns.