Compresses – whether hot or cold – are a convenient and easy way to apply heat or cold therapies to relieve pain from soft tissue injuries or other joint damage.
In some cases, injuries can best be treated by alternately applying cold & hot compresses in order to gain the benefits of both.
In this post, we will summarize the therapeutic benefits of hot and cold compresses. We will then discuss the occasions on which the use of each (or both) is optimal.
Benefits Of Cold Compresses Or Ice Packs
Using a cold compress (or ice bag) has the effect of slowing the rate of blood flow to the injured area. This is important in slowing the build up of inflammation. It also helps to reduce any swelling (and consequent tissue damage) that may be present.
Cold compresses also help to numb the pain of the injury by “crowding out” the pain messages being sent to the brain. They are therefore also effective for “pain relief”.
As a result, cold compresses are indicated for acute injuries, particularly when internal or external bleeding may be a factor. They are most effective when used in the early stages of treatment – i.e. within the first 48 hours after the injury is incurred.
When applying a cold compress, always remember to wrap it in a cold towel or other insulating material first. Never apply the compress directly against your skin as it may cause skin damage.
For Which Injuries Are Cold Compresses Most Useful?
These compresses are usually most effective when treating:
Injuries for which inflammation is a significant factor, such as osteoarthritis, gout or tendinitis;
Recent traumatic injuries, when pain and swelling may be present;
Overuse injuries such as strains, when joint pain, swelling and inflammation may also be factors.
When Should I Not Use A Cold Compress?
Avoid using cold compresses if:
There is a possible risk of cramping, as cold can increase this risk;
You are about to commence some physical activity. The cold will make your muscles and tissues less supple. That will in turn increase the risk of a soft tissue injury such as a sprain or strain;
You have diabetic neuropathy, a herniated disc or some other injury that can damage your nerves and impair your ability to sense cold. If you have such conditions, you run the risk of over applying the compress, as you are not able to accurately judge the amount of cold it has delivered.
How To Use A Cold Compress
In most cases, you should apply a cold compress for periods of around 15 minutes and at intervals of 2-3 hours. You should continue until pain, swelling and inflammation have gone altogether or at least reduced significantly.
Benefits Of Hot Compresses Or Heating Pads
Hot compresses help to dilate your blood vessels near the site of the injury. This in turn will promote blood flow through the area. In addition, hot compresses help sore and tight muscles to relax.
One effect of the improved blood circulation is a more rapid removal of waste materials like lactic acid from sore muscles. This will help to rejuvenate those muscles faster.
Patients usually report better results from the use of hot compresses (rather than cold) to treat arthritic pain.
As with cold compresses, avoid applying hot compresses directly to the skin. Instead, wrap them in a towel (preferably a damp one) first. Applying a hot compress directly to the skin may cause tissue damage.
For Which Injuries Are Hot Compresses Most Useful?
Hot compresses are particularly effective when:
Treating osteoarthritic pain;
Stiffness in muscles or tendons. This may be especially useful before physical activity, as looser and more supple muscles or tendons will stretch more easily aaaand be less likely to suffer strains.The same applies to ligaments and ligament sprains;
Muscle pain or spasms in the neck or lower back.
Osteoarthritis is a case of an injury in which both hot and cold compress use is indicated. The former will help to reduce arthritic pain while the latter will ease inflammation.
When Should A Hot Compress Not Be Used?
Avoid using a hot compress if:
You have an open wound or internal bleeding is suspected;
Your skin is red, hot or shows other signs of possible inflammation. In such cases, using a hot compress will increase the risk of inflammation.
You suffer from a condition (such as diabetic neuropathy) that damages the nerves. If this is the case, you may not be able to accurately judge the amount of heat delivered by the compress. That can lead to skin injury.
How To Use A Hot Compress
Contrary to the use of a cold compress, you should apply a hot compress until the pain has reduced significantly.