Applying cold or heat to an injured or simply fatigued area after exercise is essential. The benefits of this technique, in fact, serve to relieve the pain of patients and athletes. Let’s see what are its mechanisms of action and the most useful cases depending on the type of injury.
Should I use cold or heat for injuries?
Cold or heat: Mechanisms of action of cold
As one would expect, the beneficial effects of cold are due to the decrease in the local temperature it produces. This drop in temperature will induce vasoconstriction and, therefore, a decrease in the amount of blood in the area.
Furthermore, in the presence of cold, the speed of metabolism decreases and the action of the sensory nerves also slows down. Cold can also have other effects on the nervous system, such as increased sensitivity in the area. Also, depending on whether it is applied to superficial or deep muscles, it can increase or decrease the speed of contraction.
Keep in mind that when you stop applying cold, a rebound effect occurs. This means that the body will compensate by increasing blood flow to the cold area when the stimulation ceases. Basically, to prevent tissue damage and, once again, ensure that an adequate amount of blood reaches the area.
How heat works in the body
Conversely, the main effect of heat will be vasodilation. Causing an increase in temperature leads to an increase in the blood supply to the application area and, therefore, of all the blood cells that help to repair the injured tissues. In addition, blood pressure is also reduced with vasodilation.
Likewise, prolonged heat also promotes relaxation of the area, with antispasmodic effects and a decrease in sensitivity due to relaxation.
Finally, it should be borne in mind that, depending on the duration of the sessions and the temperature reached, with the heat the heart rate also increases, so more blood reaches the application area. In extreme cases it can cause tachycardia, so people with heart problems should be careful.
Cold or hot?
Taking into account the above, when will the application of one treatment or another be more advantageous? As a general rule, we will use cold for acute injuries and heat for chronic ones.
This means that if we have just suffered an injury, the application of cold will contain the increase in blood. In addition, it will help maintain a proportionate reaction from our body. It will also reduce edema caused by tissue breakdown and help us tolerate pain better.
On the other hand, if we have just finished a session of strenuous exercise, applying cold to the most affected muscles helps prevent side effects and limits damage.
Instead, heat will be our great ally in longer processes. Starting 24 hours after the appearance of a muscle disorder, it is convenient to apply a warm treatment.
As we have seen, once the initial inflammation is controlled, the increased circulation will help the cells to recover the tissue. In addition, its antispasmodic effect will help to heal muscle contractures or general accumulated tension.
Methods of application
Knowing whether to apply cold or heat to an injury is important in relieving symptoms. For the cold, the following methods of application are used:
- Ice cubes : in this case, they should always be wrapped in a towel, rag or similar fabric, as they should not come into direct contact with the skin.
- Cold Bags : Available in a variety of sizes, including “cold packs” that are cooled and placed on the area to be treated, or cold towels and cold compresses.
- Cold creams or sprays : offer a quick but temporary effect.
- Cryomassage : consists of massaging the affected area with ice cubes wrapped in a towel, rather than applying it and letting it work.
To apply heat, some of the tools used are:
- Thermal pillow : the classic pillow we have at home, which we will put in the microwave and apply on the area.
- Immersion : Immersion of the affected area in a hot water bath will penetrate the heat deeper.
- Infrared rays : if we go to a physiotherapist, it is likely that he applies heat through infrared rays.
- Hot creams or sprays : as for the cold, we can buy creams or sprays that offer us an immediate effect.
Finally, we also offer another alternative: massages. Massage causes an increase in body temperature. The greater the pressure of the massage, the greater the sensation of heat felt.