Hot or cold: Which therapy works best?

Unfortunately, according to recent data, chronic pain affects 20 percent of Americans. More specifically, there are 50 million Americans with chronic pain and 20 million with high-impact pain

And despite “decades of research, chronic pain remains poorly understood and notoriously hard to control,” (WebMD).

Sometimes pain is managed with highly addictive drugs called opioids. Now opioids have contributed to a drug epidemic in America.

So clearly it’s important for us all to be proactive about pain management and explore credible  alternative therapies to alleviate pain.Two pain relieving therapies are cryotherapy and thermography. 

Cryotherapy (cold therapy)

You are probably very familiar with applying an ice pack on a rolled ankle to reduce swelling or maybe on an injured knee. This is a form of cold therapy. Cryotherapy,  sometimes referred to as cold therapy, has become a pretty popular treatment for pain these days.

(With certain  injuries, the general treatment routine usually falls under “R.I.C.E.,” rest, ice, compression, elevation). 

Many star athletes, including LeBron James and Rafael Nadal use cryotherapy (particularly whole body cryotherapy (WBC)) to speed up injury recovery, reduce inflammation, reduce muscle spasms and more.

Cold therapy promotes vasoconstriction or constriction of the blood vessels. When the blood vessels constrict, blood circulation is slowed which in turn reduces redness, swelling, spasms and pain. 

The cold temperature may also numb sharp pain. It can also reduce nerve activity, which may also provide some pain relief. Essentially, cold therapy may be  good for pain.

Thermography (heat therapy).

Unlike cold therapy, heat therapy increases the flow of blood and nutrients to various areas of the body. Heat is sometimes used to alleviate muscle stiffness and pain.  It is also reported to be great for chronic low back pain as well as chronic pain in general.

“There is more support to use heat for back pain, because muscle tightness tends to predominate,” according to Harvard Health.

Hot temperatures widen blood vessels, which usually promotes circulation. This increased circulation, in turn, will usually provide the nutrients the body needs to recover and reduce pain.

But did you know there is a combination therapy which utilizes both cold and hot therapy?

Many medical professionals suggest alternating between cold and heat therapy in order to best manage your pain.

When you have a muscle strain, cold therapy may ease the inflammation and numb the pain. Heat therapy will usually ease the muscle stiffness after the inflammation resolves.

But heat and ice can be used together in an alternating pattern to create a “pumping” action in the circulatory system by restricting circulation to reduce swelling and then increasing circulation to a particular area. This alternation between heat and cold may result in an improved range of motion and expedited pain recovery. This type of therapy is typically used when an injury is at a week or longer maturity, and heat or ice alone has not worked.

There is even credible evidence that a combination of heat and cold therapy may be good for low back pain.

“Taken together, the findings of this study indicated that thermotherapy and cryotherapy caused low back pain to be relieved. Since these methods predictably have fewer side-effects and are economical and accessible, they could be used, alongside pharmacologic treatments, as supplementary ones for reducing pain in the patients with low back pain,” reports the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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