Were you ever instructed by a parent or caretaker to put a bag of frozen peas over an injury? What about taking a warm, steamy shower or putting a warm washcloth on aches and pains? These are both common remedies used to help reduce swelling, pain, and achy muscles and joints. However, cold and hot therapies are not one and the same and should therefore not be used interchangeably.
So how do you know which one to use for your particular ailment? Take a look at some of the biggest differences between cold vs. heat therapy and when to use each of these methods.
When to Use Cold Therapy
Broadly speaking, you can think of using ice packs, or “cold therapy,” as an immediate solution for short-term injuries. What does that mean? First, you typically want to apply ice within the first 24 to 48 hours after sustaining an injury, whether that’s a sudden accident such as a fall or an event like surgery. That’s because ice is primarily used to help reduce pain and swelling, which are often the first signs of an acute injury. Cold therapy works to minimize pain and swelling by temporarily restricting blood flow to that particular area of the body (Healthline).
However, cold therapy should not be the automatic go-to solution for any type of pain or swelling, even if it is applied within the first 48 hours. This brings us to our second point–that cold therapy is best used for short-term, or acute, injuries. An acute injury is one that occurs suddenly and its symptoms show up all at once, within this 48-hour period. Some examples of an acute injury would be:
- Twisting your ankle due to a sudden fall
- Colliding with another player during a football game and dislocating a shoulder
- Sustaining a wrist fracture while playing tennis
How to Use Cold Therapy
First, it is very important that you never apply ice directly to your skin. Instead, use a coated ice pack designed specifically for this purpose, or place a towel between a bag of ice or frozen vegetables and your skin. Otherwise, you could run the risk of developing frostbite (Mayo Clinic).
Secondly, you should never apply an ice pack to your skin for longer than 20 minutes at a time. It is a common misconception that the longer you apply the ice, the quicker you will heal. Instead, it is generally recommended that you apply ice for 20 minutes, then take a break for at least 40 minutes before applying it again if needed (Livestrong).
Finally, after you’ve iced an acute injury, you should try to keep that area of the body elevated above your heart to prevent additional swelling and blood pooling to the injury.
When to Use Heat Therapy
The rule of thumb for when to use heat therapy is any time there are signs of inflammation. Ice, on the other hand, should never be used to treat inflamed muscles or joints (Marshfield Clinic Health System). Thus, warm compresses and heating pads are usually the best options for dealing with chronic injuries, which inherently involve chronic inflammation, as well as muscle and joint aches and pains.
A chronic injury, then, differs from an acute injury in that it progresses over a long period of time and never fully heals or takes a very long time to heal. It most frequently occurs as a result of overusing one particular joint or muscle group, which is why many athletes end up with some type of chronic injury at some point in their careers.
Some examples of a chronic injury would be:
- Tennis elbow, which is characterized by chronic inflammation of the tendon that runs from the wrist to the elbow, causing pain and soreness (Sports Injury Clinic)
- Swimmer’s shoulder, which affects the rotator cuff and results in chronic inflammation and stiffness
- Jumper’s knee, in which the tendon that connects your kneecap to your shinbone becomes inflamed
How to Use Heat Therapy
If you’re experiencing aching, pain, stiffness, or soreness in a particular muscle or joint, applying heat to the area could help to alleviate inflammation. Heat therapy could also be appropriate to use right before partaking in a strenuous activity that might aggravate that part of the body. This can help to loosen and relax muscles and joints to help prevent further injury.
If you don’t have a heating pad, you can use a warm towel or washcloth or even soak your entire body in a tub of warm water.
When using any kind of heat therapy, you still want to limit your sessions to about 20 minutes at a time, then take a break. You should never apply a heating pad or other form of heat therapy while you sleep, and make sure that the item you’re using is not hot enough to burn or scald your skin. Even if you are using a heating pad, you may need to place an additional barrier between the heating source and your skin to avoid burns and discomfort.
Additional Tips for Calming Joint and Muscle Pain
While heat therapy can be one effective solution for relaxing stiff muscles and aching joints, the best approach is to combine several methods of reducing inflammation. For example, applying a naturally-derived anti-inflammatory cream like Enduras Recovery Cream can help to target a specific area and reduce the underlying inflammation that leads to pain, stiffness, and soreness. Enduras also contains an innovative blend of essential micronutrients like vitamins A, C, and E, and is completely free of potentially irritating or even harmful ingredients like steroids, parabens, petrolatum, and fragrance. People who have already tried Enduras Recovery Cream have found that it is an effective treatment for a large variety of ailments, including arthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, and gout.
In addition, regular exercise is one of the best lifestyle changes you can make to help improve aching muscles and joints. Although it might not seem like it at first, getting up and moving helps to keep your body loose and flexible, which can prevent stiffness and further injury. There are also specific exercises and stretches that you can do to help reduce isolated pain and stiffness, whether it’s in your knees, lower back, or hands and fingers.
You can also try stocking up on plenty of anti-inflammatory foods such as walnuts, blueberries, fish, turmeric, and ginger to help keep chronic inflammation at bay and reduce your symptoms. On the other hand, avoiding sugar, alcohol, fried foods, and most cooking oils can also help to alleviate signs of joint pain and stiffness.
If done properly, using cold and heat therapy can be a huge help when trying to manage aches, pain, swelling, and inflammation. The key is to know which one to use in which situation to make sure you’re not worsening the situation. If you’re not sure, it’s a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider before trying one or the other, especially in the case of a severe injury.
While cold and heat therapy can be beneficial, keep in mind that they should only be done for about 20 minutes before taking a break. In the meantime, try applying Enduras Recovery Cream to help enhance your results. If you’re interested in reading or viewing the individual stories of real men and women who have used Enduras for joint and muscle pain and loved it, you can take a look at our Testimonials Page.
If you still have questions about how Enduras might be able to help you to continue living an active, independent lifestyle, please feel free to contact us online with questions or comments. We would love to hear from you!
About the Authors
William Goolsbee has spent his career in Life Sciences including leading roles in drug development in immunology and genetic medicine. Recent senior positions include Chairman of the Board at Sarepta Therapeutics and Founder and CEO at Metrodora Therapeutics.
Dr. Gil Price
Gil Price M.D. is the Chief Medical Officer at the Propharma Group, where he provides medical supervision for all clinical trials. He previously served as the Chief Executive Officer of Drug Safety Solutions, where he oversaw safety monitoring for drugs in clinical development. Dr. Price also served as the Director of Clinical Development at Medimmune Oncology and Director of Medical Affairs at Glaxo.