The single biggest question we get asked is what people should use for home pain management: ice or heat. Both treatments are great natural remedies that most individuals can use easily and inexpensively for minor aches, pains and injuries. When deciding which one of these options to use, there are a few principals to keep in mind to make the choice easier.
Cold therapy (also known as cryotherapy) constricts the blood vessels, therefore decreasing blood flow to the area, while also numbing muscle spasms and pain. If you have an injury you should apply cold therapy to the area to decrease pain, this is especially useful in instances where the pain is more constant and throbbing in nature. Cryotherapy is usually applied for 15-25 minutes, but never more than 40 minutes at a time because this could damage or destroy healthy tissue. During the application of ice, there are 4 phases of sensation that you will experience: starting from an intense cold to a burning, than an aching and finally numbness. You must recover normal skin temperature before applying ice once again, which could take approximately 45 minutes.
Common applications include using a frozen ice pack, ziplock bag full of ice cubes and just use a bag of frozen vegetables – corn or peas seem to be the most popular. We should always use a barrier between the skin and the cold, so taking a tea towel and hand cloth to wrap the ice is advised. Since the cold sensation could take several minutes to start making it’s way through, you should run the towel or cloth under cold water, wring it out and then wrap the icy home pain management of your choose and then apply it to the skin. Since the cloth will be damp, the cold will have an easier time going through. For more on cold therapy, John Hopkins Medicine has additional information.
Heat therapy (also known as thermotherapy) dilates your blood vessels resulting in increased circulation and delivery of oxygen and nutrients, promoting tissue healing, and muscle extensibility. If you have a chronic injury or ongoing muscle or joint stiffness, you should apply heat therapy to increase circulation and relax stiff muscles and joints. The treatment time for heat therapy generally lasts between 15 to 20 minutes, but it can be applied for longer.
Some of the options for thermotherapy include hot packs like we see in physiotherapy offices, microwavable heat packs, electric heat packs or paraffin wax (which is especially good for hands or feet since we can submerge these structures into the melty wax). Which ever heat home pain management device you choose or have at your disposal, it is advise that you don’t lay directly on it because it could increase the likelihood for burns or irritating the skin. You want to have the hot pack laying on top of the area in question instead. If you do choose to lay on the hot pack, either turn down the intensity if it’s electric or add a towel or 2 between the skin and the pack to create a barrier.
Which Home Pain Management Strategy To Choose?
Generally speaking, cold therapy is used for acute or chronic injuries to decrease the pain. This would therefore be used in situations where pain tends to be more constant or even throbbing in nature. When the pain is more of an ache, tends to be more intermittent in nature or gives off the feeling the sensation of tightnesss will tend to respond better to heat. This also applies for chronic pain to increase movement and flexibility, while also decreasing pain.
People with sensation loss or compromised circulatory systems should use caution when using either heat or cold, as you may not be able to properly monitor your response to either the heat or cold application.
If you are still questioning whether heat or ice is appropriate for you, please contact us with your questions or concerns.