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Hot or Cold Therapy: Which Treatment is Best?

Hot or Cold Therapy: Which Treatment is Best?


When it comes to treating muscle or joint injuries, two of the most popular and effective methods for alleviating pain are applying heat or ice to the area. However, there can be confusion as to which treatment is more effective. The answer is both are equally as effective as the other. The method you use just depends on the type and cause of the pain.

It is important to know the difference between how the two treatments actually work on the affected area. Before we look at them in detail, let’s differentiate them briefly; cold treatment reduces inflammation by decreasing blood flow. It works best when applied directly after an injury occurs. The perfect example of this is when you fall over and injure your ankle, the first thing everyone knows to do is apply an icepack to reduce the swelling. Heat treatment does the opposite, promoting blood flow to help your muscles relax. For example most people who experience muscle pain in their back might have a hot bath or apply a heat pad to alleviate the pain.

What Exactly is Cold Therapy?

Also known as cryotherapy, cold therapy as mentioned above reduces blood flow to an injured area thus reduces inflammation and the risk of swelling, bruising and tissue damage. Cold therapy numbs the nerve endings and decreases the pain messages being sent to the brain. Cold therapy is most effective when applied to the area within a few hours of injury. This treatment can be used to treat both short term muscle and joint pain, and is used as part of the standard treatment for sports injuries (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation).

Cold therapy is best used to treat:

  • Osteoarthritis or Gout
  • Recent Injuries
  • Strains and sprains
  • Tendinitis
  • Migraines
  • Pain and inflammation post exercise

What Exactly is Heat Therapy?

Also known as thermotherapy, heat therapy dilates the blood vessels, boosting the flow of blood and nutrients, which in turn helps the tightened muscles relax. Similar to cold therapy, heat therapy can be used to treat both muscle and joint pain. However heat therapy is more effective in treating pain associated with older injuries, where the problem tissue lies deep within, or from pain caused by arthritis. As heat is also psychologically reassuring, it can enhance its analgesic properties.

Heat therapy is best used to treat:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Tendinitis
  • Muscle or tissue stiffness
  • Back and neck spasms and pain
  • To loosen muscles and increase joint elasticity pre exercise

Alternating Hot/Cold Treatments

For the first 3-5 days following an acute injury, cold therapy is recommenced. However after that, alternating between hot and cold treatments can prove to be beneficial for pain relief. During the hot therapy treatment, the blood vessels expand, increasing circulation and the flow of healing oxygen and nutrients to the injury. During the cold therapy treatment, the blood vessels constrict, reducing circulation which allows the injured area to soak up the nutrient rich blood before it is pumped on. This process can ensure a speedy recovery from overuse injuries such as muscle tears. It should be noted that when using a hot/cold compress, a protective layer should be played between the hot/cold compress and skin to protect against burns. In addition, anyone who experiences altered sensation should consult their physiotherapist before using hot or cold therapy.

While hot and cold therapy decreases pain for many people, it doesn’t work for more serious injuries. If you are experiencing any pain following an injury, do not hesitate to get in contact with us here at Ballsbridge Physiotherapy Clinic, to address your concerns. To book a consultation with us, either call us on 01-6606582, or alternatively book an appointment online here.

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