Heat pack vs cold pack, which is better?

When it comes to injuries and pain relief, there really is no better aid than heating and cooling agents. Both have their place and can rapidly influence things like inflammation, swelling, sensory nerve response and so forth. But what heating and cooling agents are best to recommend to patients? There are a number of options, each of them are designed for specific applications. So I've compiled a list of the best selling heating and cooling packs and therapy units, along with some of the benefits of each and the types of situations they are best suited to. As a registered physiotherapist and clinic owner in Toronto, I treat a variety of patients (sports, wcb, mva, private) and believe in offering complete care at my own practice. Offering “complete care” includes recommending helpful advice and products that can boost your patient’s recovery.

Heat therapy Use heat if you have stiff joints, chronic muscles or joint pain. Don’t apply it directly to skin, wrap the hot device in a thin towel and don’t lie on it. One common mistake is to use heat on a long lasting injury that just flared up. If you see swelling and the area is warm to touch and appears reddish, use cold first, followed by heat when the inflammation settles. Another important point is to avoid heat therapy in the case of an open wound, stitches or if you have poor circulation such as diabetes. While using a heat pack, you will see that the area that you are warming up becomes reddish, not because it is painful but due to the increased blood flow as the blood vessels open up. As the blood rushes into the area there is an increase in oxygen supply and nutrients helping to improve the range and reduce pain from joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons. Heat is great at helping to decrease muscle spasms.

How to use it? Choose a moist warmth instead of dry since it penetrates better and does not dry up your skin. Here are some examples of the different options you may encounter: a microwavable heat pack gel packs hot water bottle hot water baths It should be at a comfortable warmth – not too hot – so you don’t burn yourself, and if possible try to keep it at a constant temperature.

Cold therapy Cold acts in the opposite way to heat by slowing down the blood flow in order to decrease inflammation and pain.

When do you use it? Any cold treatment should be used for 24 to 48 hours after an injury. Cold therapy is recommended for sprains, strains, bumps, and bruises. The four signs that will tell you it’s the right time to use cold therapy are: if the injury happened recently (within 48 hours), if the area is reddish or; swollen or; warm.

How can I use it safely? Same as heat therapy, wrap the ice or ice packs in a thin towel to protect yourself from an ice burn and don’t lie on it. For swollen fingers using a cold pack or ice can be challenging, the trick is to fill up a cup with a mix of water and ice so you can dip your finger easily in it. When using cold therapy you need to feel comfortable, so avoid using it more than 20 minutes at a time.

Do use heat when you have stiff joints or muscle discomfort. Heat opens blood vessels and increases blood flow. As a result, it can help with range of motion in stiff muscles and joints and make them feel more loose and flexible again.

Don't apply heating pad directly to skin. Always keep a thin layer between your skin and the heating element to reduce your chances of burns. For the same reason, never lay on top of the heating pad. You should apply it to the area for no longer than 20 minutes for best results.

Do try to keep a comfortable temperature when using heat therapy. The ideal temperature should be just hot enough that it feels warm on your skin but doesn't burn. Use an electric heating pad if possible, as it provides a steady level of heat.

Don't expect heat therapy to be a cure all. Heat therapy can help you feel more comfortable, but it shouldn't take the place of other forms of treatment. Check with your doctor if you suspect a more serious issue.

Do use cold therapy on swelling and bruising. Cold temperatures restrict blood vessels, which can help reduce inflammation.

Don't apply ice for longer than 20 minutes. Always keep a layer between your skin and a cold pack, and never leave ice on one area for too long. Be sure to remove the cold pack after 20 minutes and wait at least 10 minutes before reapplying.

Do use cold therapy within the first few days of discomfort. Ice and cold packs should be applied within the first day or two of discomfort to help with inflammation.

Don't use cold therapy in place of medical help. If you've injured yourself badly, or even if you're not sure, it's important to get checked by a physician before administering hot or cold therapy on your own. Your doctor will be able to advise you on how to properly alternate between heat and cold to feel more comfortable.