Nobody wants to suffer from aches and pains. Luckily, the medical community has invested a lot of time and effort into finding ways to help people to cope with their pain. Everything from pharmaceuticals to massage has been created to ease pain; heat and cold therapy is one such treatment.
What is Cold Therapy?
Cold therapy is also sometimes known as cryotherapy. It comes in a few different forms. It could be said that ‘putting ice on an injury’ is a form of cold therapy, and indeed a rather well-known one. Cryotherapy is a much more extreme form of cold therapy that uses very cold temperatures to reduce inflammation and promote healing.
How Cold Therapy Works
The idea of heat and cold therapy is that heat promotes circulation, while cold reduces blood flow and also reduces inflammation, as well as reducing muscle spasms.1
You may have heard the first-aid advice of using rest, ice, and elevation to treat injuries. While that advice is now controversial and other forms of treatment have come to the forefront, the basic idea of using cold therapy is sound. Studies show that using melting iced water, applied to the injured area through a towel (to protect the skin) can help to promote faster healing.2
Giving Your Body a Helping Hand
Cold therapy works well for sprains and strains, and can also help with fatigue and general soreness. The treatment does not actually ‘repair’ the damage to your body so much as it helps your body to take care of itself. It reduces inflammation and helps to keep the temperature of the damaged tissues low, so that you can retain mobility and therefore promote healing. It is still important that you rest the affected area and avoid doing more damage, and that you use other treatments in conjunction with cold therapy.
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For example, if you are tense and achy, the ginger in the Relieve blend could help to reduce inflammation, and you may find that you heal more quickly if you get a good night’s sleep, which the lavender and chamomile in the Sleepy blend can help with that by relaxing you and reducing anxiety.3 Your body does a lot of its work in terms of repairing damaged tissues while you sleep, so it’s important that you get enough sleep each day to stay healthy.
Temporary Pain Relief
Ice and heat are both good options for temporary pain relief, and some people swear by ‘contrast bathing’ which involves alternating ice and heat to provide both short term pain relief and longer term help with healing. Depending on the injury you have, or the problem that you are trying to treat, you may find that ice is suitable in some cases, and that heat is better in other cases.4 Heat can reduce stiffness, while ice can help to numb pain and reduce inflammation. Both heat and ice can stop spasms.
One good general rule is that ice is useful for relatively new injuries since it can limit bruising and reduce pain, while heat is better for older injuries and long term conditions because it can increase blood flow and relax tense muscles.
What to Do With a Fresh Injury
If you’ve slipped and fallen, suffered a nasty bruise, or have a stiff neck, then the first thing you should do is assess the injury and consider how serious it is. Stop the activity that caused the injury, and avoid putting weight on the injured part.
If you’re confident that you haven’t broken a bone or suffered a dislocation, then you can follow the PRICE protocol:5
Protect the area from further damage, rest the injured limb (rest does not mean ‘stop moving completely’, but don’t return to vigorous activity until it’s better), use ice to reduce swelling and pain, apply gentle compression to reduce the swelling, and keep the injured limb elevated when you can.
Small amounts of gentle movement will promote circulation to the injured area and stop the limb from seizing up. It will also help to reduce the risk of the muscles atrophying, meaning that you’re less likely to suffer from more injuries in the future.
Stay mobile and active as much as you can, but aim to give the injury time to heal. If you do not notice an improvement in the injured area after a couple of days, or if the pain is very severe, seek medical advice.
If you are suffering from arthritis, sciatica, or some other form of longer-term pain, then heat treatments may be a better option than cold therapy. Your doctor will be able to advise you on the best form of self-care for the issue that you are having, and whether you can also use massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture or other complementary treatments to reduce chronic pain.
Photo credits: JacobLund/shutterstock.com, CascadeCreatives/shutterstock.com, JacobLund/shutterstock.com