Basic heat therapy, or thermotherapy can involve the use of a hot water bottle, pads that can be heated in a microwave, or a warm bath.
For cold therapy, or cryotherapy, a water bottle filled with cold water, a pad cooled in the freezer, or cool water can be used. In some cases, alternating heat and cold may help, as it will greatly increase blood flow to the injury site.
Fun Facts on Cold and Heat Treatment
- Cold treatment reduces inflammation by decreasing blood flow. Apply within 48 hours after an injury.
- Heat treatment promotes blood flow and helps muscles relax. Use for chronic pain.
- Alternating heat and cold may help reduce exercise-induced muscle pain.
- Never use extreme heat, and never put ice directly on the skin.
Icing and heating an injured area are not a one-way street; the two complement each other and often work hand in hand when it comes to recovering from an injury. Doing both while in recovery and upcoming participation may help avoid injury in the future.
When to Ice
Icing an injury typically takes place immediately after the injury occurs. Using a cold compress or ice pack on a strained muscle can decrease inflammation and numb pain in the area. Icing is effective at reducing pain and swelling because the cold constricts blood vessels and decreases circulation to the area.
For example, if an athlete rolls an ankle in a volleyball match an immediate application of ice will cut down on long-term swelling and potentially lessen recovery time.
How to Ice
Ice injuries for 20 minutes at a time, with 20 minute breaks in between sessions. There is no long-term timeline for icing. If desired, the volleyball player mentioned earlier could ice the injured ankle after every practice and game to alleviate potential soreness.
Icing isn't limited to an ice pack or frozen bag of peas. Different types of ice treatment will cater to different types of pain, including:
- Cold whirlpools allowing for submersion of large parts of the lower body
- Cold wraps over the eyes, forehead, and temples to relieve the pain of migraine headaches
- Bags of ice often available in athletic settings for quick treatment following injury
When to Heat
Heat treatment is never done for a sudden injury, such as a collision on the court or a bike crash. Heat is typically used during the recovery process. Heating the injury immediately after it happens may cause further damage.
Heating a sore or injured muscle increases blood flow and metabolic activity which leads to a loosening of muscle tissue. Warming an injured area relaxes stiffness and relieves pain in aching joints, such as those affected by arthritis.
Regularly heating before a practice or game can also help with avoiding stiffness as warm-ups transition into performance. This will also loosen up the muscles to avoid injury or soreness. For example, heating a shoulder prior to and while pitching in a baseball game may help contribute to a longer time spent on the mound.
How to Heat
Heating pads are the most common form of heat treatment, but there are a few methods you can use depending on what kind of heat you need.
- 15-20 minutes should be the target duration
- Moist heat can be achieved by taking a warm shower or bath.
- Heated whirlpools offer relief from joint pain or total-body soreness.
- Placing a heat wrap around the neck may also reduce spasms that contribute to migraines or headaches.
DIY Ideas for Cold and Hot Packs
DIY Cold Pack
- 1 quart or 1 gallon plastic freezer bags (depending on how large you want the cold pack)
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup rubbing alcohol or 1 cup dish soap
Directions: Fill the plastic freezer bag with 1 cup of rubbing alcohol or 1 cup dish soap. Add 2 cups of water. Remove as much air as possible out of the freezer bag before sealing it shut. To avoid leakage, put the bag and its contents inside a second freezer bag. Freeze for at least an hour. During use, place a towel between the cold gel pack and bare skin.
DIY Hot Pack (Dry Heat)
- Something cloth as a container (sock, small pillowcase, fabric)
- 4-6 cups of filling (e.g., uncooked rice, flax seed, buckwheat, oatmeal)
- Sewing materials
Directions: Fill your cloth container with the filling material. Sew the container shut or tie it off if you're using a sock. If desired, add soothing aromatherapy. Microwave the container for 1-3 minutes. Test warmth before applying to avoid burns.