Running hot or
cold on pain?
YOU’VE GOT AN “owie.” What’s the best approach to treating that ache,
pain or injury?
Heat and cold therapies both play a role in the treatment of muscle and
tissue conditions, and both are used to help alleviate pain.
However, because body tissue responds differently to heat and cold, and
because the cause of an injury—and therefore the source of pain—can vary,
you should know when each treatment is appropriate.
How does heat therapy work?
By activating receptors found in tendons, muscles, ligaments and joints,
heat inhibits pain receptors, reduces muscle tension and enhances blood flow
to tissues. The increased blood flow improves healing by allowing an influx of
cells involved in tissue repair. The effects of heat also decrease joint stiffness.
When should heat therapy be used?
Heat therapy is commonly used for everyday muscle aches, soreness,
stiffness and spasms, backache and various forms of arthritis.
Heat is also often recommended to treat chronic ailments, including muscle
tightness and tension, and may be effective therapy after four or five days
following an injury.
How does cold therapy work?
The swelling and inflammation that result from an injury are primarily
caused by fluid leaking from damaged blood vessels. Application of cold to
the injury helps constrict the blood vessels, reducing their tendency to leak
and restricting the amount of fluid buildup, thereby reducing the degree of
swelling and inflammation. Lowering the temperature of the skin over the
injury can also help reduce pain and muscle spasms.
When should cold therapy be used?
Cold therapy is recommended for treatment of acute or sudden injury,
and is recommended as the immediate treatment for almost all sports injuries,
including stress fractures, sprains, pulled muscles, tendonitis, hamstring
injuries, runner’s knee and tennis elbow.
Treatment with cold may be effective for acute flare-ups of chronic
conditions, and cold therapy has also been used for many years for the relief
of pain associated with migraine headaches.—T. Foster Jones