How Cold and Heat Therapy Helps You Heal

04 Oct How Cold and Heat Therapy Helps You Heal

Close-up view of a person's leg that has a heat therapy pack wrapped around their knee.

Cold and heat therapy can help your injuries heal faster after an accident has happened. Heat or cold is used to either speed up circulation or slow it down to an area. Speeding it up can help bring nutrient-rich blood full of oxygen to tissues and cooling down an area can stop pain and inflammation. Using both of these in the same treatment can also be beneficial. Find out how both cold and heat therapy are used for healing!


Common Symptoms After an Injury

Acute injuries are ones that have a sudden onset, causing chronic or sharp pain. The most common types of acute injuries happen in sports, car accidents, with falls and trips and similar, quick accidents. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something in the body is injured and needs your attention, however, it’s not the only symptom.


Inflammation and swelling are also common symptoms, as is hotter skin and bruising. Neuropathy—or loss of feeling—is also common and might be accompanied by tingling and instability. Inflammation is a natural response your body has with injuries. When tissues are damaged in a specific area of the body, your body will make extra fluid to cushion the area in distress. That extra cushion can help the injury from becoming more damaged as your body tries to heal. This influx of fluids can sometimes make your skin feel warm to the touch.


With lots of inflammation fluid, you will also experience swelling, which can become painful as your skin stretches. Too much fluid will lead to increasing pain. With some inflammation, your body can heal itself as it fights against viruses and bacteria. However, with too much inflammation or persistent inflammation for weeks, your body tissues can actually become more damaged. That’s why it’s important to get it under control with cold and/or heat therapy.


Image of ice cubes that are on fire.

How Can Heat Therapy Help?

Temperatures really do have an effect on your body, which is why you yourself have a specific temperature your body keeps you at. Heating an area speeds up circulation, which can bring more nutrients to damaged tissues. More heat and added nutrients helps tissues to have more of what they need to start healing. This is because heat dilates blood vessels, increasing blood flow. This can help muscles and tissues to relax, easing tightness, muscle soreness and inflammation.


Heat therapy is generally best when used with an injury that takes more than a few days to heal. You may do cold therapy the first two days of an injury, then continue with heat therapy for days or weeks afterwards. Heat therapy can be soothing, as your boosted circulation moves out lactic acid from your muscles, which cause soreness. It too, can help soothe inflammation and pain from an injury. Patients that practice heat therapy through warm/hot baths, heating pads, heat treatments via therapy providers and other methods are often in less pain than those who forego heat therapy methods.


How Can Cold Therapy Help?

Cold therapy is often used to help numb areas in pain and to reduce inflammation and swelling. You want to use cold therapy during the first few days of an injury and for continuing pain. Cold therapy helps to decrease blood flow to an injured area of the body, which reduces inflammation. Swelling decreases as inflammation decreases, which reduces the amount of tissue damage you get from an injury.


Until your body regulates the right amount of inflammation for healing, it may have too much fluid immediately after an injury. Starting cold therapy right away will stop excessive swelling and inflammation. A good baseline recommendation is to ice an injury for 15-20 minutes at a time. Do this every 4-6 hours as needed, making sure to never put ice directly in contact with the skin. If you’re using an ice pack, wrap it in a thin towel or thicker cloth so you avoid ice burn against your skin.


Some patients will do ice baths for sports injuries or soreness after training. This should be done with the supervision of a coach, chiropractor, physical therapist, doctor or other professional to avoid burns or tissue damage from too much cold exposure. You can also use an ice cube directly against your skin for an injury, but only if you move the ice cube around constantly. Move the cube in a circular motion around an injury as it melts, but only for a maximum of 5 minutes. Ice therapy can be beneficial for arthritis pain, injuries, muscle strains or tears, tendonitis or any condition causing swelling, inflammation and pain.


Close-up view of a person getting ice cube icing therapy on the back of their thigh as they lie on a massage table.

Using Both Cold and Heat Therapy Together

You can use both cold and heat therapy together for healing. It’s best to use cold therapy methods within the first 48 hours after an injury to decrease the amount of inflammation and swelling. A common suggestion is to practice R.I.C.E. immediately after an injury. That stands for “Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.”


You want to get off the injured leg or stop using the injured limb while icing it, compressing the area safely, and propping up the limb so less inflammation and swelling happens. Use both cold and heat therapy wisely for your injuries. Don’t use cold therapy if you’re already cold or numb in an area or if there is an open wound. If your muscles are cramping, cold therapy can make this worse. Don’t use if you have nerve disorders that already numb your feeling.


With heat therapy, don’t use on an open wound of if your skin is already hot, red or inflamed. Don’t use if neuropathy conditions numb your sensations to the heat. To use both cold and heat therapy methods, talk to the professional treating you. Both may not be needed or one is preferred depending on your end goal. To see what methods of cold and heat therapy we use for patients, call Mile High Spine & Pain Center today at (720) 507-0080!


Mile High Spine & Pain Center