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In Which Cases Are Heat or Cold Therapy Useful?

Oct 12, 2007
Go take a warm bath. Put some ice on it. Soak it in cool water. How many times have you heard this sort of advice after an accident or injury or during a time you were experiencing pain? Hot therapy --applying heat-- and cold therapy --applying cold-- for an affected area are both age-old methods. But for what are they most useful, and how should they be used?

Heat Therapy

The function of hot therapy is to open the blood vessels. This increases blood flow throughout the body or to one area of the body, which helps to deliver oxygen and nutrients and remove waste. It also relaxes the muscles and helps to reduce pain in the affected area.

Hot therapy is generally used for muscle stiffness and ongoing pain. It can also be used on more acute problems, such as incipient respiratory infection, bronchitis, asthma, circulatory problems, and lung disease. Heat therapy is also effective at treating cramps, muscle pain, gastric and duodenal ulcers, and rheumatoid arthritis and arthrosis.

Heat therapy is generally applied as a wrap, a compress, a sauna, a shower, or a bath. Heat baths can be used to treat the whole body, or used to treat only the affected area. You should always use caution when using heat therapy, and always check that the temperature is comfortable for you. Don't use heat therapy over open wounds or stitches, or if you have poor circulation. Hot treatment should not last more than thirty minutes.

Cold Therapy

As you might guess, cold therapy does just the opposite of hot therapy. It slows down blood flow to a particular area, helping to reduce inflammation, muscle spasms, and pain.

For injuries, cold treatment is generally used right after the injury itself. It's effective in treating sprains and strains caused by physical activity. It also helps stop nosebleeds, and can be used to reduce the severity of minor burns, as well as treat pain. Other than injuries, cold therapy is effective in treating varicose veins, edemas, low blood pressure, headaches, circulatory problems, sleeplessness, and strangely enough, even susceptibility to the common cold. It also helps with various inflammatory arthropathies, pleurisy, and respiratory infections.

Superficial cold (that is, cold applied to the outside of the body) is available in a variety of forms, including cold packs (you can purchase these at your local drug store), cold towels or compresses, ice cubes, and hydrotherapy (baths). Cold therapy is generally known to last longer than heat therapy, and should only be applied a maximum of twenty minutes at a time. Ice should never be applied directly to the skin. While using cold therapy, it's very important to check the skin often (every five minutes or so) to assure than no damage, such as freezer burn, has been done. Wait at least an hour between cold treatments.
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