Heat and cold therapy can be highly effective for several conditions and injuries, such as pulled muscles, arthritis, and inflammation. The best part is that these treatments are affordable and can be done at home. The tricky part is knowing what situations call for cold and which calls for hot. Sometimes a single issue will require both.
Generally, ice is used for acute injuries or pain, inflammation, and swelling. Meanwhile, heat is used for muscle stiffness or pain. You can also use heat and cold therapy for back pain.
Heat is used to improve blood flow to a particular area. An increase in temperature soothes discomfort, heals damaged tissue, and increases muscle flexibility. Think of why we warm up (increase our core temperature) before exercising—to reduce the risk of injuries as muscles become more flexible.
You can use heat therapy when using your prosthetic limb for the first time, which can aggravate muscles and damage some tissue. Using heat therapy before your prosthetic training sessions can help prepare your residual limb and other areas that may hurt due to changes in gait as your body adjusts to compensate for the missing limb.
You can use saunas, heating pads, and dry heating packs for heat therapy. You may want to use hot baths, moist heating packs, or steamed towels for less application time and better effects.
Professional heat therapy treatments are also excellent if they are available to you. For example, heat from an ultrasound is effective in relieving tendonitis.
How to use
Heat therapy is beneficial when used for a reasonable amount of time. For minor tension or stiffness, heat therapy should be applied for 15 to 20 minutes. But if you are experiencing moderate to severe pain, try longer heat therapy sessions, like a 30-minute warm bath.
When not to use
If the painful area is swollen, bruised, or both, use cold therapy instead. Avoid heat therapy if you have an open wound in the area you wish to treat. Also, avoid heat therapy if you have deep vein thrombosis, dermatitis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and vascular diseases.
If you have hypertension or heart disease, consult your doctor first. And if you’re pregnant, check with your doctor before using hot baths or saunas.
Cold therapy (also known as “cryotherapy”) reduces the blood flow to the painful area. It can greatly reduce pain-causing swelling and inflammation, especially around a tendon or a joint. Cold therapy can also temporarily reduce nerve activity, relieving pain. This is why cold therapy or image-guided cryoablation relieves phantom limb pain.
There are various ways to apply cold therapy, like coolant sprays, frozen gel packs, ice baths, ice massage, and ice packs. Other types of cold therapy include movements, like cryokinetics, which combine active exercise and cold treatment for treating ligament sprains.
Cold therapy is perfect for treating inflammation and swelling in your residual limb. And if you happen to sprain your sound side leg during training or playing an adaptive sport, cold therapy is your go-to treatment.
How to use
To treat inflammation and swelling at home, wrap an ice pack in a towel and apply it to the affected area. Remember to avoid using any frozen items directly on your skin, as it can damage your skin and tissues. And apply cold treatment as soon as you can after an injury.
Unlike heat therapy, cold therapy should be used several times a day for short periods. You shouldn’t apply cold therapy for more than 20 minutes to prevent damage to the skin, tissue, and nerves. For best results, we recommend elevating the affected area.
When not to use
Cold therapy isn’t for you if you have sensory disorders, like diabetes, as you may not be able to feel if damage is being done. If you have poor circulation, it’s best to avoid cold therapy. And always remember to avoid using cold therapy on stiff joints or muscles.
When to use both
Using both heat and cold therapy is beneficial for patients with arthritis—heat relieves joint stiffness, and cold treats acute pain and swelling.
However, if you feel worse discomfort or pain while using either treatment, stop it immediately. And if there are no improvements with regular heat or cold therapy, we recommend consulting your doctor to discuss other treatment options.