Effective Use of Heat and Cold Therapy


Applied heat and cold therapies can be very effective in controlling pain and speeding recovery from injuries or muscle and joint pain.  To effectively use these treatments, just follow some simple guidelines.


Heat therapy

Heat therapy can be divided into superficial and deep modalities.  Superficial heat therapies include heating pads, heat lamps, warm moist compresses and medicated creams or gels.  Pain associated with muscle spasms, leg cramps, menstrual cramps and superficial thrombophlebitis responds quickly to heat treatments.

Deep heat therapies usually are applied by a physical therapist or medical technologist. These include ultrasound treatment, electric stimulation, paraffin baths.


Cold therapy

The acronym “RICE” reminds us how to treat acute injuries like sprains, strains bumps and bruises. It stands for:

  • REST
  • ICE


By following these guidelines, most minor injuries to skin and soft tissue like muscles, ligaments and tendons can be minimized.   The body’s response to injuries like this is to swell quickly.  Swelling prevents injuries in two ways. First, increased pressure from body fluids compresses the area and makes the nerves more sensitive to pain. The highly sensitized nerves respond more easily to painful stimuli, discouraging you from putting weight on the area or moving it.  Next, the swelling acts like a splint, and reduces mobility at the site of the injury. 


Applying cold therapy to these injures short circuits the body’s natural swelling response.  By closing down blood vessels to the area, less blood and fluids enter the area, thus less swelling can occur.  With diminished swelling, there is less pain and stiffness. Recovery can progress faster with less loss of strength, and therefore, less rehabilitation. Compression of the injured area also helps to prevent excessive swelling. Elevation uses gravity to encourage blood and fluid to flow away for the injured area, also working to decrease swelling. 


Contrast Therapy

By combining the beneficial effects of heat and cold therapy, more chronic conditions can be improved.  This method is most effective for long standing pain and stiffness associated with arthritic problems and joint pain. Persistent swelling after an acute in jury such as a sprain responds very well to contrast therapy.  To perform contrast therapy, simply apply heat for 5 minutes, then apply cold for about 5 minutes. Repeat the cycle for 20 to 30 minutes.


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