Hot shower versus a cold shower? Should I apply ice or heat pads? Is sauna better than cryotherapy? What does cryotherapy even mean?
It is safe to assume that we all have been in a situation unsure of when to use cold versus heat therapy. For years, this has been a hot topic for scientists and many cool benefits have been discovered regarding the use of cold and heat therapy to relieve musculoskeletal pain and aid with recovery.
Pain due to a musculoskeletal injury is a common health problem that can be acute or chronic in nature. Although it’s a prevalent health problem, it is often undertreated which could lead to long term consequences such as chronic pain.
Therefore, it is important to seek treatments that aim to reduce pain and swelling, if any, while also aid in recovery. Heat and cold therapy are both easy to use non-pharmacological treatments for the management of acute pain, however, in some cases, one is deemed better than the other. People often hear the benefits of both treatments; however, many are still unsure of which treatment to apply and how it helps relieve pain.
So here is what you need to know about how cold and heat therapy relieve pain and when to use and not use each treatment.
Cold therapy is also known as cryotherapy, which is exposing the body to low temperatures for several minutes. This can be done in various ways such as using ice packs or opting for ice baths or cold plunges. Recently spas have been offering whole-body cryotherapy sessions, which exposes your entire body excluding the head to extremely cold air. This has been a growing trend and used commonly by celebrities and athletes. However, it is important to note that the use of whole-body cryotherapy has not been approved by the FDA or any other government agencies.
So now you may be wondering when should you apply cold therapy and how does it work?
As a rule, it is recommended to apply a cold source to acute musculoskeletal injuries such as ankle sprain or muscle pull for a few minutes as an immediate treatment (within 24 hours) to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. The way it works, ice reduces blood flow to the affected area which will reduce inflammation as well as swelling.
Swelling stimulates pain receptors known as nociceptors within the muscle’s connective tissue and results in muscle pain. Therefore, when you apply ice or a cold pack, the swelling will go down and pain will slowly diminish. However, studies have shown that cold therapy is only effective when applied almost immediately after injury and the benefit will diminish over time.
The duration and frequency of cold therapy vary, however, a recent study has shown that intermittent therapy protocol of 10 minutes ice, 10 minutes room temperature then 10 minutes of ice every 2 hours is significantly more effective at reducing pain (the study examined ankle pain) than a standard cold therapy protocol of 20 minutes of continuous icing.
Someone can’t talk about cold therapy and not mention Wim Hof, also known as the iceman. Wim Hof is a Dutch athlete known for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures. He designed a training program called the Wim Hof Method which is built on breathing, cold therapy, and commitment.
Cold is an important pillar of the Wim Hof Method due to the many health benefits it serves such as reducing inflammation, swelling, and muscle pain. Studies have shown strong evidence that ice baths, cold plunges, and ending your daily shower with cold water aid in physical recovery and strengthen our immune system. Exposure to cold conditions causes our blood vessels to constrict then open back up when the body warms up, which will help eliminate waste from our body and aid in physical recovery.