Hot and Cold: Which Temperature Therapy is Appropriate for Your Injury?

At some point in your life, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll experience some sort of injury, whether it’s a sprained ankle, a pulled muscle in your back or something else. One of the most commonly recommended home remedies to ease injured body parts is the application of ice…but also heat.

This conflicting advice can cause some confusion, especially when heat or ice application makes an injury hurt more than it did before. But which is correct to apply to an injury? The answer is actually both, but at the right times.

Knowing how heat and ice can affect the body will help you determine which temperature therapy to use to ease your aches and pains.

The benefits of ice

Ice application, or cryotherapy, is perhaps the most commonly known at-home treatment for injuries. Right after you sustained your injury, you were probably instructed to ice it.

This is because ice helps reduce the swelling and redness that occurs immediately after you get injured. Your body’s immune system triggers an inflammatory response that floods the injured area with oxygen and nutrients to help it heal quickly. While this immune response is a good thing, it can cause a lot of swelling and discomfort.

Ice is often used to ease these side effects. Ice can reduce blood flow to the area, which slows inflammation and can reduce swelling. Applying ice is most important in the first few days after getting an injury, since that is when the inflammatory response will be the most severe.

Ice can also act as a local anesthetic, numbing injured tissues to relieve pain. Additionally, it can slow or prevent tissue damage as a result of the injury.

Ice is best used for recent, or acute, injuries where the immune response is active. It is less useful on old or chronic injuries. Ice should never be applied to tissues that are already stiff (use heat, instead).

If you’re applying ice, you should always wrap the bag of ice or ice pack with a towel or cloth so that the cold doesn’t harm the skin.

What happens when you add heat?

Heat therapy, or thermotherapy, also has its role in the home treatment of injuries.

When heat is applied to an area of the body, it dilates the blood vessels, increasing blood flow. For this reason, applying heat is generally not recommended on fresh injuries, because it will only intensify the immune response and can make swelling worse.

However, heat does have numerous benefits, too. One of the most important uses of heat application is the relaxation of tight or sore muscles and tissues. When trauma causes tension, stiffness and pain can occur. Heat can help relieve these issues.

Because of its relaxing properties, heat can be useful in the management of chronic pain, especially problems that cause stiffness.

Taking hot showers or baths, applying electric heating pads or using a hot compress are some of the most popular ways to put thermotherapy to work.

Which is right? Heat or ice?

If you’re experiencing pain, you’ll want to identify what kind of injury you have before you can decide whether ice or heat is appropriate to treat it.

Immediately after an acute injury occurs, apply only ice for the first 48 to 72 hours. This will help reduce swelling and alleviate pain by numbing the tissues. After the first few days, you can try applying heat to relieve sore muscles and loosen things up.

Sometimes, alternating between cold and heat therapies is recommended after the first few days to promote fast healing and keep pain to a minimum. Neither cold nor heat should be applied for more than 20 minutes at a time.

If you’re experiencing chronic pain from a longstanding condition, such as arthritis, you never want to apply ice. Always use heat to relax the muscles and tissues and improve mobility in the affected area.

Other home remedies for pain

Ice and heat are instrumental in treating pain at home, but they are often part of a larger strategy for pain management. If you are trying to avoid using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or pain relievers, try these other pain relief methods instead.

  • Epsom salt baths: Taking a bath with Epsom salts may help alleviate pain from injuries or chronic conditions. The ingredients in the salts absorb into the skin and help reduce inflammation.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Ingesting omega-3 fatty acids, whether through foods like fish or through supplements, may help relieve inflammation throughout the body. Omega-3s are often recommended for people with chronic pain, especially from conditions like arthritis.
  • Essential oils: Some essential oils are believed to assist in pain relief, such as rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus and peppermint.

If pain from your injury persists for more than a few days, consult a doctor to discuss the problem and determine your next steps for recovery.

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