Both cold and heat are useful for treating different types of pain.
Treating pain with heat and cold can be very effective for a number of conditions and injuries. The trickiest part is knowing which situations require heat and which require cold. Depending on the type of muscle pain, because a soreness is not the same as a sprain, a blow or a contracture, we must apply one treatment or another. As a general rule, we will use cold for acute injuries or pain caused by inflammation and swelling, while heat will be more suitable for muscle pain or stiffness. Choosing one temperature or another can also depend on the sensitivity of each person.
Cold at first
When we have exercised the body intensely, we can prevent soreness with a cold shower or a massage with ice cubes, since it is recommended to apply cold therapy in the first 48 hours of pain, to go on to a heat treatment after this time. In this way, a recent injury that causes inflammation can be stopped with the application of cold using a gel pack or with a simple bag of frozen peas, which we will carefully put on the affected area.
Cold therapy works by reducing blood flow to a particular area, which can significantly reduce the inflammation and swelling that causes pain, especially around a joint or tendon. But continuous local application of cold can produce vasodilation, so it should be brief, in periods of between 15 and 20 minutes.
Treatment options include the application of ice packs or frozen gel, cooling action sprays, or performing an ice massage, but we should not use them on stiff muscles or joints, nor if we have poor circulation, as indicated by the physiotherapist.
Heat is helpful when pain is due to nerve spasm or stress, as heat therapy improves circulation and blood flow by increasing temperature, which can relieve discomfort and increase muscle flexibility. As the physiotherapist explains, in this case our brain receives the heat signal and replaces it with pain.
There are two different types of heat therapy that we can achieve by applying heating pads, moistened towels, or taking hot baths. For example, a treatment that we can do at home is to bathe in hot water, pouring a bowl of salt into the bathtub. We can also apply heat to a specific area, with a thermal water bag at 40º.
People with certain conditions such as diabetes, dermatitis, or vascular disease…should not use heat therapy, due to the increased risk of burns or complications. Likewise, if the area in question is bruised, swollen or there is a wound it is better to use cold therapy.
In any case, if cold or heat therapy does not help relieve pain after 48 hours, in the case of cold, and one week, in the case of heat, we should consult a physiotherapy doctor.