You may have heard of using an ice pack or warm compress to help relieve various types of bodily pain. This is because heat boosts the flow of nutrients and blood to an area of the body, while cold does the opposite, slowing down blood flow and reducing pain and swelling.
As such, using a warm compress is ideal for warming up the muscles before any physical activity and dealing with morning stiffness. In contrast, an ice pack is best for short-term pain like strains or sprains. That said, does it matter which one you use to treat an injury?
Read on to know when to use one or the other.
How To Use A Warm Compress
A warm compress is used to apply heat to a certain area in the body and can either be a dedicated product or made at home with items on hand. Some examples include a re-heatable gel pack, an electric heating pad, and a bottle filled with hot water.
One of the benefits of using a warm compress every couple of hours is that the heat can penetrate deep into the underlying muscles. When applied, it dilates the blood vessels and promotes blood flow, increasing blood circulation to the tissues and achieving the following effects:
Eases tendon and muscle soreness
Loosens tight muscles
Delivers nutrients to the applied area and quickens the healing process
A warm compress is good for treating conditions such as:
Muscle injuries, aches, and spasms
Stiff, swollen, or tender joints
Back pain, such as musculoskeletal strain in the lower back
Since a warm compress increases blood flow wherever it is applied, there are cases when it is inadvisable to use it, namely:
When there is inflammation or swelling in the area since a higher blood flow can worsen the inflammation. The same applies to acute injuries and can even slow healing.
Areas with eczema and similar skin conditions may get triggered by the heat.
After heavy exercise, when blood flow is already high, wait for at least four hours before applying heat and 48 hours if it is for an injury.
Injuries that feel warm when touched since they indicate a developing infection.
How To Use A Cold Compress
A cold compress or ice pack causes the opposite effect and instead contracts the blood vessels on the applied area, reducing inflammation and swelling. Ideally, it should be applied as soon as possible after suffering a normal injury or when a joint gets inflamed to relieve swelling.
You can try many types of cold packs, such as a frozen gel pack, a bag of frozen vegetables like peas, an instant chemical cold pack, or a simple bag of ice cubes wrapped in cloth. Cold treatment works best for conditions like:
Swelling and recent acute injury
The reduced blood flow from cold treatment is not recommended for the following situations:
1. Treating infected areas.
2. Before engaging in vigorous physical activity.
3. In any part of the body with poor blood circulation, especially those with medical conditions like diabetes. Prolonged cold exposure numbs the applied area and may cause tissue damage.
4. Around the neck and left shoulder for those with heart conditions.
When Either Heat Or Cold Will Do
You are free to use either heat or cold compress or alternate between the two for contrast therapy for conditions such as:
1. When experiencing muscle soreness, pain, or spasms, including headache-inducing neck spasms
2. Joint pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia
3. Back and neck pains
4. During the healing period of a muscle, tendon, or ligament injury (apply a cold pack in the first 24 hours and then switch to a warm compress in the later stages)
5. Immediately after getting a bruise (apply a cold compress to slow down blood flow and reduce swelling, followed by a warm compress to increase blood flow and disperse the bruise)
It is important to remember a few guidelines when using hot or cold compresses. First, use them for no more than 20 minutes at a time, and avoid using a compress that is too hot or too cold as it may damage your skin. You can see this in the colour of your skin, which should ideally be pink and not white or red. Let your skin reach its normal temperature before reapplying the compress, and only in areas where the skin is not broken. If a hot or cold compress does not relieve the pain, consider contacting a pain management specialist for evaluation.
Affinity Pain Clinic is the leading provider of evidence-based therapy treatment for many pain conditions, ranging from sports injuries to Singapore musculoskeletal knee pain and everything in between. Whatever it is causing you pain, we can provide cost-effective and extensive treatment to bring you relief and return your quality of life to normal.
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