If I had a penny for every time I heard people ask or argue about whether heat or cold should be applied to an injury, you’d think I was a water fountain — or the informal “gum tree” tribute to Lincoln in D.C. Well, I’m about to end my tenure as a would-be collector of copper discs with this list, because I’m going to give you 5 basic guidelines to help you discern whether hot or cold treatment is best suited to your injuries. (Feel free to give me a green hand shake the next time you see me.)
1. Is your injury acute or chronic?
As a general rule, ice helps treat acute injuries, especially during the first couple weeks after the tissue has been damaged. Basically, it helps to alleviate swelling and inflammation caused by sudden injuries such as back spasms, orthopedic injuries, ankle sprains, or sports injuries of all shapes and sizes.
For chronic injuries or long-time problems, heat is more likely to benefit. Like when your back has been sore for months on end or your bum knee you injured playing rugby a decade ago is aching, again.
2. When are you intending to treat the area or injury?
If you’re wanting to help prepare an area of your body before exercising, you’ll want to use heat. It will provide the muscular tissue in the troubled area with an increased blood flow, helping it to function more fully.
If you’re treating the area following exercise, you’ll want to use cold therapy, since it will help lessen the pain and swelling.
3. Do you have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis?
For patients suffering from osteoarthritis, heat can offer relief from stiff joints. Many report feeling as if joints are loosened as a result of a hot compress.
For those with rheumatoid arthritis, though, that same heat and the resulting increase in blood flow can actually cause inflammation and increased pain, so if anything is applied to the affected areas, it should be cold.
4. Is tendonitis involved?
This time, I’ll let you guess which therapy would be most effective. Knowing that superficial tendonitis is basically the condition of tendons close to the skin’s surface being inflamed, what do you think would help? If you guessed ice, you are correct. From patellar tendonitis and Achilles tendonitis to tennis elbow and wrist overuse tendonitis, the cooling effect of ice can relieve the pain caused by inflammation.
5. What feels good?
This is one of those fairly rare situations in which you can actually go with what offers you the most relief from pain. The above “rules” have been assembled due to a combination of feedback from patients and the consensus of medical professionals, but at the end of the day, it’s your body, and only you can tell what’s actually helping relieve your pain.
PhysioDC of Washington, D.C.
Daniel Baumstark and his professional team of physical therapists operate a boutique physical therapy office in downtown Washington, D.C. From athletes to government officials, and from ballerinas to corporate executives, PhysioDC helps people recover, strengthen and return to healthy living. Visit their website at www.PhysioDC.com or call them at 202-223-8500.