Hot and cold therapy are both excellent ways to treat and prevent injuries. Hot and cold therapy can be used on many different injuries and conditions, but knowing which to use can be tricky. In some instances, both can be used in one treatment. A good rule of thumb is to use cold therapy immediately after an injury and heat therapy to relax and soothe sore muscles. For more on the different types of hot and cold therapy, keep reading.
Cold therapy, known as cryotherapy, is used for treating acute injuries, reducing inflammation, and treating pain. Cold therapy works by narrowing the blood vessels, known as vasoconstriction, which reduces blood flow to the area and helps reduce pain. There are many types of cold therapy available.
Ice Packs or Frozen Gel Packs
Ice packs and frozen gel packs are common in every first aid kit. This method of cold therapy is most often used when treating injuries at home. Ice packs are good for injuries and pain associated with tendonitis, sprains, and arthritis pain.
Topical Cold Therapy
Topical cold therapy includes coolant sprays and gels like Orthogel, Biofreeze, and Fast Freeze. Topical cold therapy is used to target an area quickly without needing to hold an ice pack in place and remain immobile. Studies have found that topical cold therapy is more effective at preventing pain than an ice pack.
Ice Massage combines the benefits of soft tissue manipulation with the numbing effects of ice. Using a large ice cube, one massages the ice around the injured area where the pain is felt. This treatment is best kept to 5 minute intervals to prevent damage to the skin.
A cold wrap is similar to a frozen gel pack, however a cold wrap has cold water circulating throughout the pad. Cold wraps allow deeper cooling of the tissue and joints due to the pressure from the compression wrap. This deep, focused cooling has a greater decrease in pain and swelling. The water temperature is maintained by the cooling system, keeping the cold therapy at a constant temperature and allowing for longer treatment. See Game Ready Wraps and Accessories or Breg Cold Therapy Products.
Cyrotherapy chambers are used as whole body cold therapy treatment. The patient steps into a cryotherapy machine and stays in for no more than three minutes. The unit is cooled with liquid nitrogen and can reach -170*C.
Heat Therapy, also known as therapeutic heating or thermotherapy, improves circulation and blood flow to the affected area. Heat therapy is most often used to treat chronic injuries and pain. There are two types of heat therapy: dry heat and moist heat. Dry heat includes heating pads and saunas, while moist heat includes steam towels and hot baths. Moist heat is more effective and requires less time to get the same results as dry heat.
Most people have heating pads in their homes and use the heating pads to treat chronic pain. Heating pads can be applied for 20 minutes and are best used for treating large areas like the hip, shoulder, and back. Depending on the heating pad, either moist or dry heat can be applied to the area.
Heat wraps, similar to cold wraps, strap in place over the injured area and apply moist heat. Heat wraps allow more mobility while treating areas. Moist heat wraps provide deeper penetration of the tissues and can be a more effective treatment option. Some of these wraps, like the Elasto-Gel brand can be used for either cold or heat 
Dry heat units tend to focus on areas that can be fully immersed, such as the arm, foot, or lower leg. Dry heat units gently massage while circulating heat around the immersed area. These can improve circulation, speed the healing process, and reduce pain.
A hot bath is one of the most widely used heat therapy treatment options. Hot baths can include soaking in a tub for 20 minutes or indulging in a trip to a hot tub. Immersing the entire body in heat promotes circulation, increased oxygen flow, and loosens the muscles.
Sauna and Steam Room
Saunas and steam rooms are effective ways to get whole-body heat therapy. Saunas are kept at high temperatures with low humidity while steam rooms are kept at lower temperatures with high humidity. Both saunas and steam rooms allow for deeper penetration of the muscles and tissues with heat since the body’s core temperature is also heating.
In some instances, alternating hot and cold therapy provides the most benefits for the injured area. When alternating therapies, be sure to follow a physician’s directions on how to properly apply the hot or cold therapy. As with any treatment option, it is important to stay hydrated. Protect your skin when using hot or cold therapy. It is easy to overlook skin protection and this can lead to burns or damage to the skin.
Consult a physician before using any cold or heat therapy as these therapies are not ideal for certain conditions. Hot and cold therapies are great alternatives to addictive pain management medicine and provide natural pain relief.