Temperature-related therapies are used to treat muscle pain and joint stiffness and aid the recovery process. Although hot and cold treatments can be used simultaneously, each therapy is used to treat different types of injuries, and which method you choose will mostly depend upon whether the pain is acute or chronic.
Cold therapy is used as immediate treatment for an injury that has caused inflammation or swelling. Ice is used to decrease blood flow to the affected area, in turn, reducing any swelling of the skin and preventing the area from becoming stiff.
Cold therapy should be used immediately after the injury has occurred and can be used for up to 48 hours after. Cold therapy is suitable for sprains, strains and bruises that commonly occur during sporting activity or excessive strain, and can also be used to reduce the effects of muscle spasms. However, as well as offering effective immediate treatment from an injury, cold therapy can also be used in later phases of injury recovery to improve range of movement when carrying out rehabilitating exercises.
Types of cold therapy
Instant ice packs and freeze sprays are the most common types of cold therapy. The ice should be applied gently for no longer than 20 minute intervals, ideally with 10 minute breaks in between sessions to avoid damaging the skin. If treating an area that has broken skin, the ice pack should be wrapped in a towel before applying.
Hot treatment is most commonly used on recurring pain to increase circulation, relax muscles and promote the healing process of damaged tissues. Heat therapy works by absorbing into the skin and opening up the blood vessels, promoting blood circulation and supplying oxygen to the affected area. Heat can also be used to reduce muscle spasms and restore movement by improving flexibility of joints, tendons and ligaments. The heat should be at a consistent temperature, without being too hot.
Stiff joints, chronic muscle pain and rheumatic pain can all be treated with heat. Hot treatments should not be used in conjunction with certain health conditions, including poor circulation, diabetes, open wounds or post-surgery.
Types of hot therapy
Common sources of heat therapy include dry heat, such as electric pads and deep heat rubs, and moist warmth, such as hot water bottles and hot baths. Before applying to the affected area, heat devices should be wrapped in a protective layer, such as a towel, to avoid burning the skin. The heat should be applied in 20 minute intervals, but can be applied for longer if treating severe pain – but only if this has been recommended by a doctor. If there is any swelling around the affected area, cold therapy should always be used first.
If you are unsure of what type of therapy to use, a doctor, a nurse or a physiotherapist will be able to direct you to the most suitable method of treatment for your pain. Whilst it is possible to use home-remedies, such as a bag of cold peas or a hot water bottle, purpose-made hot and cold therapies are available from most chemists or from online pharmaceutical distributors such as Steroplast Healthcare, for convenient and effective pain relief.
Dual-purpose devices, known as contrast therapy, can also be used to treat soft tissue injuries. Applying alternative hot and cold treatments to the sore area can reduce inflammation whilst simultaneously stimulating circulation and restoring movement.
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