To Relieve Pain: Hot or Cold?

Acting quickly after an injury is important, because inflammation occurs rapidly. Characteristics of inflammation are pain, local redness and heat, swelling and loss of function. At home, two remedies are easily at hand to treat common neck, back or extremity injuries: local application of cold or heat. 

Understanding the similarities and differences between heat and cold therapy is important.

Applying cold

  • Decreases blood circulation to the injured area;
     
  • Reduces cellular activity; 
     
  • Relaxes muscles by decreasing muscle spasms; 
     
  • Reduces pain; 
     
  • May cause a temporary stiff feeling.

Applying heat

  • Increases blood circulation;   
  • Increases cellular activity;  
  • Relaxes muscles;   
  • Stimulates tissue elasticity;   
  • Reduces pain.

Ice should be applied every two to three hours for inflammation. Continue as needed for seven to ten days, or more. However, consult your health care professional if you feel no relief or if symptoms appear, such as constant or increased pain, significant loss of mobility, disturbed sleep or absence of improvement, even after rest and immobilization. 

Avoid applying heat during the acute inflammatory stage, as it can contribute to the inflammation. Once cold has done its work and inflammation has disappeared, heat therapy can be used to relieve mild pain and help repair tissues. 

When you don’t know whether to apply heat or cold, try cold first during ten to fifteen minutes. If there is no improvement, apply heat for a period of 20 to 30 minutes. The best course of action, however, is to see your health care professional, physiotherapist or pharmacist.

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