Following your instincts or winging things may be a good thing but not necessarily when it comes to choosing treatment methods. Knowing which form of therapy works better will make things easier for you and make treatment more effective. When is heat therapy appropriate for the treatment of an injury? When will using an resuable ice pack have the maximum effect? How do you make the ultimate choice; hot or cold pack? 

These, and many more, are the questions that you will get answers to in the course of this article. 

Heat Therapy

Heat therapy, also known as thermotherapy, is usually preferred for muscle pain and stiffness that is often caused by bad posture or repetitive movements. It can be used to treat pain from osteoarthritis, stiff muscles, and tendonitis. This is not without good reason. Heat therapy works by increasing blood flow to a particular area of the body due to the increase in temperature. It dilates the blood vessels, allowing more blood to flow through them, and loosens up tight or sore muscles. Heat has analgesic effects which are also why it is better for chronic pain than cold.

Types of Heat Therapy

There are two major types of heat therapy:

  • Moist Heat: Also known as convection heat, moist heat is gotten from sources like hot baths, steamed towels, and moist heating packs. This type of heat therapy is often preferred because it can be more effective, has better analgesic effects, and is less time-consuming. While this may take effect in about two hours, dry heat may require eight hours.
  • Dry Heat: This type of heat therapy is also known as conducted heat therapy, and it can be obtained from sources like dry heating packs, heating pads, and saunas. The heat from an ultrasound is also considered heat therapy and can be used to treat tendonitis.

Application of Heat Therapy

You can apply heat therapy locally, regionally, or to the whole body. Local therapy is best used when the affected area is small, like when you have just one stiff muscle from a sore neck. You can place a small heated gel pack or a warm towel on the neck, in this case. A regional application can be used for a painful area that is slightly larger. You can use a steamed towel, heat wraps, or a large heating pad. Lastly, full body treatment is used when you have several painful areas that you are trying to treat at once. For this, a sauna or hot bath will be best. 

While cold therapy can only be applied intermittently, heat therapy can be applied for hours at a go if the situation warrants it. You can apply it for any time between fifteen minutes and two hours. For dry heat, you can even go beyond that. The amount of time you will spend during heat therapy depends on the kind of pain you have and how intense it is. Mild pain may only require about fifteen to twenty minutes for pain relief.

Do not use hot temperatures; no matter the type of heat, “warm” should always be the aim. Extreme temperatures can cause skin burns and increase the risk of infection. Stop the application immediately if you notice your skin getting red, swelling up, or going numb.

When to Avoid Heat Therapy

There are some cases when you should not use heat therapy. Heat therapy should not be applied to bruised or swollen wounds; cold therapy may be better for that. Heat packs should also not be applied to open wounds. Furthermore, certain conditions like dermatitis, diabetes, vascular diseases, multiple sclerosis, and deep vein thrombosis(DVT)  can worsen due to heat application. If you have hypertension, are dealing with heart problems, or are pregnant, you should see a doctor before applying heat therapy. Lastly, heat can make an infection spread faster. Take note of that when you are thinking of going to the sauna.

Cold Therapy

Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, involves using reusable gel ice packs or any form of ice for treatment. It is preferred to heat for treating acute injuries or pain, inflammation, and swelling.

Cold therapy works by reducing blood flow in a particular area through the constriction of blood vessels and reduction of nerve conduction. It functions exactly opposite to how heat therapy does. Reduction of blood flow can reduce swelling and inflammation, while reduction of nerve conduction can relieve pain.

Types of Cold Therapy

There are different forms of cold therapy, including:

  • Ice packs are the most commonly used. For this reason, we will be focusing more on them in the rest of this article.
  • Ice baths
  • Ice massages
  • Coolant sprays
  • Cold therapy chambers
  • Cryostretching, which combines cold and stretches
  • Cryokinetics, which combines cold treatment and active exercise

Gel Ice Packs

Ice packs are the most commonly used form of cryotherapy. Its price range, when compared to that of other forms, may be held accountable for that. It is also extremely easy to apply, which makes it suitable for emergencies. There are different types of ice packs; they are:

  • Gel Ice Packs

Gel ice packs are filled with different types of gel that vary from brand to brand. These packs are fancied because they usually retain their soft, slushy form after being in the freezer. This makes it more comfortable because it is easier to mold them to different parts of the body. In addition, most gel ice packs can be used, alternatively, as heat packs.

They usually maintain their cold temperature for hours thanks to the kind of gel they contain. They are also quite versatile in that they come in different shapes and sizes. They can also be reused over and over again; this makes them a worthy investment. They are, however, not the best options for emergencies because they require adequate freezing before they can be used.

  • Instant Ice Packs

Instant cold packs are best for emergencies; no other type of ice pack can rival these little packets when it comes to that. We can attribute this to the fact they only need to be shaken vigorously to be activated; they do not require refrigeration. They are also light and very portable.

Instant ice packs work very fast and are quite efficient, but they usually can not retain their temperature for long. In addition, they lack versatility and can not conform to the body’s contours. Lastly, they can not be reused as gel packs can. 

  • Clay Ice Packs

Clay ice packs are the heaviest of all types. This is because of their content—clay—which is naturally heavy. This is probably the biggest con of clay ice packs because it makes them very difficult to carry around, hence, unsuitable for emergencies. They also require the longest hours of refrigeration to be activated.

Clay ice packs also retain their slushy form after freezing, quite like gel packs. They can also maintain their cold temperature for a long time due to the dense arrangement of their particles. Clay ice packs are environmentally-friendly, non-toxic, and versatile.  They do, however, have another big con; they can dry up in direct heat or sunlight.

You can make your ice packs at home with readily available ingredients like water, alcohol, diaper innards, or salt.

Application of Cold Therapy

Do not apply ice directly to your skin, as this can lead to frostbite and even nerve or tissue damage. When using an ice pack, endeavor to wrap it in a clean towel before application to avoid direct contact with the skin. 

The amount of time you apply cold therapy is also quite important. Ice packs should only be applied for about fifteen to twenty minutes at a go. Anything longer than that can make you go numb or even damage your nerves. As a rule of thumb, the lower the temperature, the slower the blood circulation. Therefore, if you keep an ice pack on for too long, you can cut off blood flow to a particular part of your body. Ice baths and massages may be allowed the liberty of about extra ten minutes because they are usually not as intense. 

Ice packs are best used with other therapy forms because they cannot completely treat pain alone. Rest and elevation can be combined with cold therapy in the case of an acute injury. 

If you notice that your pain is getting worse during the application of ice, you should stop it immediately. Also, if it does not get better in a few days with cold therapy, you should do the same thing. This way, your doctor will be able to offer you other treatment options or do a re-assessment.

When to Avoid

If you are suffering from diseases like diabetes, arthritis, or any other sensory disorder that affect sensitivity or nerve conduction, you should avoid the use of cold therapy. Using cold therapy with such conditions may cause reactions that you won’t notice on time. You should also not use cold therapy if you have stiff muscles or experience poor circulation.

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