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Cold or hot compress: Know which type of therapy is better to sooth your pain

By Saima Siddiqui 
Updated Date

New Delhi: We often get confused as to which treatment or therapy would be beneficial to subside our aching sore muscles. Treating pain or injuries with hot and cold compress has been an old tradition in India and doctors often recommend these therapies to treat pain, inflammation, swelling and stiffness as it is one of the most effective and affordable ways to treat any type of pain. However, the tricky part is knowing which compress (hot or cold) to use in what type of situation. Well, the basic rule of thumb is to use a hot compress on chronic muscle pain and stiffness, while cold compress is used on inflammation and swelling. Although, sometimes doctors can prescribe a combination of both the therapies depending on your injury. 

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So, let’s learn about each therapy and know when to use it:

Heat therapy or ‘Thermotherapy’ 

As we have already learnt that Heat therapy is ideally used in chronic pain, joint pains and stiffness as it promotes blood flow and increases circulation. Heat therapy applied to an injured area can also soothe your excruciating pain, discomfort instantly and could increase muscle flexibility. Heat therapy should not be applied to acute injuries with inflammation as it is caused by bleeding in the tissue, even a slight temperature rise to the injured area could increase the blood flow thus, worsening the situation.

It is also advised by experts to take a hot shower before doing any physical activity as it relaxes the muscles and increases muscle flexibility. Know when to apply Heat therapy: 


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-Chronic irritation and stiffness in the tendons

-Warming up stiff muscles or tissue before activity

-Relieving pain in case of neck or back injury, including the lower back

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Thermotherapy types

Never ever use hot compress at high temperature. It should not be burning hot but should be warm as too hot thermotherapy can burn your skin, so make sure that the temperature is warm and not “too” hot.  There are different ways to apply heat therapy, it can be in the form of: 

Dry heat: It is done by using products like electrical heating pads, hot water bottles and saunas. Dry heat can be applied for up to 8 hours.

Moist heat: This therapy includes steamed towels, moist heating packs, or hot baths. It is tout to be more effective than dry heat and takes less time to show results. 

Heat therapy can be used over a long period of time. However, it is advised to use heat therapy for 15 to 20 minutes on minor injuries. For moderate to severe injuries, longer sessions of heat therapy like warm baths are required. 

Even though heat therapy is a good method of relieving pain, it should not be used open wounds or in places where the injured area is inflamed. Pregnant women and people with diabetes, dermatitis, vascular diseases, deep vein thrombosis, multiple sclerosis (MS) should always consult a doctor before applying heat therapy as they are at a higher risk of getting burns and complications due to their heath conditions. 

To note, applying heat in an infected area can increase the risk of the infection spreading, so if you do not see results after applying heat therapy for a week, consult a doctor. 

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Cold Therapy or ‘Cryotherapy’ 

Cold therapy or cryotherapy is applied to reduce the inflammation and swelling. It numbs the nerves and slows down the signal of pain receptors to the brain thus acting as local anaesthesia. Cryotherapy is most effective within 48 hours of the injury as it reduces the blood flow to the injured area subsequently, reducing the risk of tissue damage. It treats a swollen and inflamed joint or muscle. Cold therapy should be applied in situations like: 


-Recent injury



-Irritation in the tendons following activity


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Cryotherapy types

One should never apply, direct ice on the wound as it can do more harm than good. There are different ways to apply a cold compress to an injured area, those include:

Cryotherapy products: This includes products like ice packs, coolant sprays and ice massage.

Cryo stretching: In this case, cold temperature is used to reduce muscle spasms during stretching.

Cryokinetics: This type of therapy combines cold treatment and active exercise and is in case of ligament sprains.

Ice baths: This is another form of cryotherapy, which has become popular among sportsmen and women to cool strained muscles in order to recover faster. Cold water immersion typically lasts for 10 minutes and is well established in sport science as a way of speeding up recovery.

To note, one should never apply ice for more than 20 minutes as it can damage the nerve, skin and tissues. People with heart disease should consult a doctor before applying a cold compress. for better results, apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel to the injured area several times a day for short periods of time. If cold therapy did not work within 48 hours, consult a doctor.

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