If you’ve been in physical therapy before, you may remember your physical therapist using hot or cold on the affected area. But why? And how do heat and cold help with injury repair and recovery?
The practice of using warmer temperatures to aid healing is called vasodilation. Heat draws blood to an area, increasing oxygen and nutrient availability while more swiftly carrying away waste. Heat also relaxes tense muscles, reduces muscle spasms, and prepares those muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints for exercise and stretching.
There are many ways heat therapy can be applied. Dry or moist heat sources include: heating pads, compresses, paraffin, hydrotherapy/whirlpool (where the affected area is immersed in water), and chemical/gel packs. It’s important not to leave any heat therapy in place too long (no more than 20 minutes) or to use too hot a heat source, as burns or other damage could occur. Heat therapy should feel warm and may dull aches and pains, but never apply anything hot to the point of discomfort.
Cold as Ice
Actually, applying ice directly to the skin is a terrible idea. But cold therapy, or cryotherapy, can be incredibly helpful by producing vasoconstriction, which slows circulation. By slowing circulation, the body is encouraged to decrease swelling in a muscle or joint, or prevent swelling after an exercise.
Cold therapy is usually applied with commercial cold packs, ice cubes (though never directly against the skin), iced towels/compresses, and forms of hydrotherapy/whirlpool. Like heat therapy, cold therapies should be applied for a limited amount of time, no longer than 15 minutes, to prevent pain or damage. As cold is applied, you may feel cold, then a hot sensation, then an ache, and finally numbness.
For Professional Use Only
When used properly, heat therapy and cryotherapy can be an invaluable part of managing your discomfort during physical therapy and speeding your recovery. It is important to have your hot and cold therapies administered by a physical therapist in order to make sure you get the correct treatment and duration, as well as to maintain your safety. Request an appointment today to start using hot and cold therapies!