How it works
Heat therapy works by improving circulation and blood flow to a particular area due to increased temperature. Increasing the temperature of the afflicted area even slightly can soothe discomfort and increase muscle flexibility. Heat therapy can relax and soothe muscles and heal damaged tissue.
There are two different types of heat therapy: dry heat and moist heat. Both types of heat therapy should aim for “warm” as the ideal temperature instead of “hot.”
Dry heat (or “conducted heat therapy”) includes sources like heating pads, dry heating packs, and even saunas. This heat is easy to apply.
Moist heat (or “convection heat”) includes sources like steamed towels, moist heating packs, or hot baths.
Applying heat therapy
Heat therapy is often most beneficial when used for a good amount of time, unlike cold therapy, which needs to be limited.
Minor stiffness or tension can often be relieved with only 15 to 20 minutes of heat therapy.
Moderate to severe pain can benefit from longer sessions of heat therapy like warm bath, lasting between 30 minutes and two hours.
How it works
Cold therapy is also known as cryotherapy. It works by reducing blood flow to a particular area, which can significantly reduce inflammation and swelling that causes pain, especially around a joint or a tendon. It can temporarily reduce nerve activity, which can also relieve pain.
There are a number of different ways to apply cold therapy to an affected area. Treatment options include:
ice packs or frozen gel packs
Other types of cold therapy that are sometimes used include:
cryostretching, which uses cold to reduce muscle spasms during stretching
cryokinetics, which combines cold treatment and active exercise and can be useful for ligament sprains
whole-body cold therapy chambers
When not to use
People with sensory disorders that prevent them from feeling certain sensations should not use cold therapy at home because they may not be able to feel if damage is being done. This includes diabetes, which can result in nerve damage and lessened sensitivity.
You should not use cold therapy on stiff muscles or joints.
Cold therapy should not be used if you have poor circulation.
Applying cold therapy
For home treatment, apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel or ice bath to the affected area. You should never apply a frozen item directly to the skin, as it can cause damage to the skin and tissues. Apply cold treatment as soon as possible after an injury.
Use cold therapy for short periods of time, several times a day. Ten to 15 minutes is fine, and no more than 20 minutes of cold therapy should be used at a time to prevent nerve, tissue, and skin damage. You can elevate the affected area for best results.
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