The differences between hot and cold therapies

Hot and cold therapies work in different ways, but both can help fight pain and inflammation.

Inflammation can affect anyone, and those who have battled it likely have nothing positive to say.

But while few people may associate inflammation with something good, inflammation is actually a process by which the body’s white blood cells and the substances those cells produce protect the body from infection at the hands of bacteria, viruses and other foreign organisms.

While inflammation is protective by nature, sometimes an inflammatory response is triggered by mistake. When that happens, the body’s immune system, which is designed to protect the body, begins to damage its own tissues.

The resulting symptoms of this faulty immune system response may include joint pain, joint stiffness, loss of function in the joints and swelling of the joints.

None of those symptoms are comfortable, and people suffering from them may be on the lookout for ways to alleviate their pain and suffering.

While anyone battling persistent inflammation should speak with their physicians to explore their treatment options, a preliminary search of how to best treat inflammation will no doubt turn up information about heat therapy and cold therapy.

The following breakdown should not replace a physician’s advice, but it can help patients battling inflammation better understand both treatment options.

Heat therapy

According to the Merck Manual, a reference book for physicians and patients alike, heat works against inflammation by increasing blood flow and making connective tissues more flexible.

Heat also can be used to combat edema, a condition characterized by an excess of fluid in the tissues of the body. Upon application, heat can temporarily reduce pain and alleviate stiffness in the joints. Heat also may temporarily relieve muscle spasms.

The Cleveland Clinic notes that heat can be effective at relieving pain associated with worn-away cartilage in the joints because it eases chronically stiff joints and relaxes tight muscles.

In addition, moist heat can relax painful neck spasms linked to nerves or blood vessels in the head or pain emanating from muscles in the neck. Heat can be applied via hot packs, infrared heat, paraffin baths and hydrotherapy.

Cold therapy

Cold therapy, sometimes referred to as “cryotherapy,” can relieve pain associated with inflammation that has developed recently. Cold can help numb tissues and relieve muscle spasms and can also be used to alleviate pain associated with injuries.

The Merck Manual notes that ice bags or cold packs can be used to apply cold. In addition, fluids that cool by evaporation, including ethyl chloride, may be applied topically. Some medicines may interact with ethyl chloride spray, so inflammation sufferers should consult their physicians before applying such sprays.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, ice can be used to calm flare-ups and numb pain associated with chronic, inflammatory arthritis.

Ice also can ease inflammation and numb pain linked to pulled muscles or injured tendons. Pain and inflammation resulting from the stretching or tearing of ligaments in the joints may also be eased by applying ice to the affected area.

Heat and cold therapies can effectively combat symptoms associated with inflammation, but such treatments should always be discussed with a physician before being instituted.


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