Even those of us who live in desert climates are not immune from the chill of winter weather. It can permeate your bones and drive you indoors for several months straight. It is completely normal to seek warmth as the days get shorter.
Hot and cold therapy has been a mainstay for treating minor sports injuries. The idea is that applying cold, or ice, to an injury immediately after it occurs can reduce swelling and inflammation. Then, once the initial healing has begun, heat can be applied to soothe soreness and restore a better range of motion.
In the winter months hot therapy can seem like more than just a helpful tip for sore and aching muscles. Who doesn’t want to curl up with a hot water bottle when the temperatures dip below freezing? However, there are some things to keep in mind when using hot therapy in cold weather.
To avoid unnecessary complications from the incorrect use of hot therapy, here are a few things you should consider.
The primary uses of hot therapy
Applying heat to the body opens up the blood vessels and increases blood flow. This helps supply oxygen to painful areas including joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Using heat can also reduce muscle spasms and improve range of motion issues. Heat is a great non-medical treatment for painful conditions or injuries.
Hot therapy is perfect for cold winter days and sore muscles. Winter sports, outdoor maintenance, and other activities can lead to pain and discomfort. Applying heat in the correct ways to these conditions will help speed recovery and provide comfort from the cold.
How to use hot therapy safely
It is important to know what to do when applying hot therapy and how to do it to avoid further injuries.
The heat source can be either dry or moist. Dry heat sources, such as an electric heating pad, may dry the skin while applying moist heat can get better penetration into the affected area. Electric heating pads, microwavable pads, hot water bottles, gel packs, warm towels, and hot water baths are all possible methods for applying hot therapy. It is important to make sure the heat source is not too hot and can be maintained at a consistent temperature for as long as possible. You want to avoid burning or scalding. When using a dry heat source you may wish to place a towel between the pad and your skin to prevent burns or discomfort. Depending on your injury or condition, certain heat sources may be better suited for you. Your doctor or specialist can make recommendations.
Tips for hot therapy
Other helpful tips for safety when using hot therapy include:
- Keep heat applications under 20 minutes unless otherwise directed.
- Do not apply heat if there is swelling around the injury. Cold therapy should be applied first.
- Patients with poor circulation or diabetes should avoid hot therapy.
- Heat should never be used on open wounds or areas with stitches.
- To avoid burns don’t give into temptation to lie down with an electric heating pad. Make sure you are able to stay awake and upright when using these devices.
Hot therapy should not be used when there is bleeding or inflammation. Because the heat opens up the blood vessels, this can cause increased bleeding and further complications. When an injury is fresh or there is inflammation present you may wish to choose cold therapy as an alternative. Applying ice to an injury at this stage will reduce the swelling. A good rule of thumb is to use cold therapy for acute pain or new injuries. Use hot therapy for chronic pain or an injury that is more than a day old.
If the injury or pain persists after the use of hot therapy, you may also wish to speak with your physician or specialist to determine if there are any complications or issues that require a different approach or intervention.
Injuries or conditions that benefit from hot therapy
Some injuries or conditions that can benefit from the use of hot therapy include:
- Sore muscles: If you’re been shoveling snow or putting up holiday decorations you may be feeling some tight, sore muscles in your shoulders or legs. This is the perfect opportunity to apply hot therapy. Use a hot water bottle or a heating pad to apply the heat directly to the area that is feeling the discomfort.
- Menstrual cramps: Every woman knows that heat around the midsection during their period can help reduce cramping. Even a warm cat on your lap can feel comforting during this time of the month. Curl up in bed with a hot water bottle and get plenty of sleep to reduce the effects of menstrual cramps. Don’t use an electric heating pad while you’re sleeping.
- Aches from the flu: If you still have a fever, hot therapy may not be the right choice but otherwise go ahead and add heat to your recovery regimen. This is a case when you may want to apply heat to your entire body. A hot bath, maybe scented with soothing oils or herbs, can help you relax and make it easier to get some much-needed sleep.
- Comfort from the cold: There is absolutely nothing preventing you from using hot therapy as a respite from the cold weather. Staying indoors with a cup of hot tea can bring comfort on a cold winter’s night. Take a hot shower to get the blood flowing before wrapping yourself up in warm, fleecy pajamas.
There are many things to keep in mind when it comes to hot or cold therapy. Always make sure you follow your doctor’s instructions regarding the use of these techniques. Incorrect adherence can result in increased pain or complications from injuries. It is also important to follow the safety tips outlined here and not use hot therapy if it is not the right solution for you.
How have you used hot therapy to soothe an injury or chronic condition?
Image by rosemary via Flickr