Hot vs. Cold Therapy

If you’ve ever injured yourself or pulled a muscle after a workout, it can be tricky to know whether to go at it with an ice pack or a heat patch. And while the chances are we all may have both forms of therapy on hand in the freezer or medicine cabinet, knowing which one to reach for is imperative if you want to kickstart the healing process right away and not do any more damage. We break it down for you below.

What is heat therapy?

Heat therapy, or thermotherapy, can be applied to anything that uses hot or warm temperatures to increase blood flow and circulation to an area of the body. although we often associated heat therapy with heated patches and warm compresses, it can mean everything from a hot bath to a session in the sauna. By increasing the temperature of the affected area, you can help ease soreness and tension, soothe damaged tissue and increase flexibility. Applying heat also helps removes lactic acid from overworked muscles, effectively helping to unclench them so that you can use more them more freely.

What is cold therapy?

Cold therapy, often known as cryotherapy, uses very cold temperatures to reduce blood flow, thus reducing swelling and inflammation. It’s also useful at temporarily reducing fluid build-up and numbing nerve endings, which if they're particularly sensitive, can also help alleviate paint and discomfort. Cold therapy can come in the form of cryotherapy chambers, ice packs or cooling over the counter sprays or patches.

When to use them

The general rule of thumb is, if the afflicted area is swollen or bruised then use cold therapy first to soothe it and immediately start to reduce inflammation ­– think of cold therapy as more of a first-aid intervention. Although it may be sore to apply cold temperatures at first, applying heat to something swollen initially may make it worse and cause it to swell more. If the problem is a pulled muscle, apply ice to the area first to get the swelling down and then apply heat later to soothe the pain. If you’re generally sore after an intensive workout or have aching muscles or chronic pain, then go right ahead and use heat straight away. While cold therapy should only be used for short amounts of time (any real length of time can actually cause tissue damage), heat therapy can go a little longer; soaking in a warm bath for upwards of 30 minutes is a great tonic for easing stiffness.