What Are the Benefits of Hot & Cold Therapy?

Ice cubes
Performing hot and cold therapy can help with acute and chronic health complaints. (Image: Brand X Pictures/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

According to The Merck Manual, techniques such as heat therapy and cold therapy are effective in the treatment of your pain and inflammation. Practitioners use thermal therapies to promote improved range of motion in your injured joints and body segments, which allows you to participate sooner and more fully in rehabilitative activities following your injury. Chiropractors, physical therapists and other practitioners use heat or cold therapy based on when your injury occurred and the degree to which you have already healed.

Heat Therapy Benefits

SportsInjuryClinic.net touts heat therapy as an effective approach to treating your sports-related musculoskeletal injury. Heat therapy is divided into two principal categories based on the heat's ability to penetrate your skin and affect your underlying tissues: superficial and deep. Examples of superficial heat therapies include infrared heat, hot packs, paraffin wax baths and hydrotherapy. Examples of deep heat therapies include shortwave and microwave diathermy and ultrasound. Applying heat to your tissues increases your circulation or blood flow and causes your connective tissue to become more flexible. It also promotes a transient reduction in your joint stiffness, pain and muscle spasms. Using heat therapies can help you reduce inflammation and congestion in your tissues. Heat therapy is used to treat many health complaints, including arthritis, muscle spasms, muscle sprains and strains, and even cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Cold Therapy Benefits

Cold therapy or "cryotherapy" is used by trainers and health care professionals to treat acute injuries of your musculoskeletal system. Use of cryotherapy—which includes ice packs and ice massage, according to JointHealing.com—is intended to reduce your metabolic rate, inflammation, circulation, muscle spasms and pain. Cold therapy cools your skin's surface and underlying tissues, which results in the narrowing of your blood vessels—a process called vasoconstriction. Vasoconstriction of your blood vessels causes a reduction in the blood volume to the site of your injury, resulting in reduced swelling. Cold-induced vasoconstriction also decreases the likelihood that your cells will die due to lack of oxygen, as cryotherapy reduces your cells' metabolic rate and oxygen requirements. It's still not entirely clear how cryotherapy helps lesson your pain, but the cold stimulus may override your pain sensation, according to SportsInjuryClinic.net.

Contrast Therapy Benefits

According to the Institute for Integrative Healthcare Studies, the use of contrasting temperatures—also known as contrast therapy—has been used as a healing tool for thousands of years. When applied in successive fashion, heat and cold are believed to exert a physiological effect on your body's pain gate mechanism, which temporarily alters pain signals traveling to and from your brain. This temporary reduction in pain is a welcome relief for those suffering long-standing complaints of the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. You can apply contrast therapy locally on your skin, using hot and cold packs, or systemically, using contrast baths or steam rooms and cold pools, known as hydrotherapy, which uses water of contrasting temperatures to treat small or large areas of your body. If you're considering incorporating thermal therapies into your treatment routine, you should talk with your primary care provider to discuss the risks, benefits and treatment options available.

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