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a man is trying cold therapy by using an ice pack on his arm after a workout

You Might Be Using the Wrong Approach When Treating Pain at Home! Try Cold Therapy Instead

By Dr. Raphael Ye

Cold therapy, or cryotherapy, is a healing technique that exposes parts of the body or the whole body to controlled periods of extremely cold temperatures. Cold therapy can be used for a localized, smaller area like a joint or muscle, or larger swaths of the body. It can also range from a simple ice pack to much more advanced techniques like nitrogen chambers.

Cold temperatures decrease blood flow to the area being treated for a short period, which can aid in reducing swelling, inflammation, and even nerve activity. In turn, this will reduce pain around the muscles, joints, or tendons which are being treated. Cold therapy is most effective when used shortly after an injury. If too much time passes, it may not be as effective in curbing pain. 

Most of us are familiar with hot water bottles or heat pads to soothe, relax, and lessen pain. However, for many injuries that cause pain, heat may not be the most effective answer. Applying ice to an injury or painful area can work much better for acute injuries or post-operative pain. But–what’s the most effective and safe way to utilize cold therapy? 

Who Does Cold Therapy Benefit?

There are three main groups of injuries or types of pain that are best treated with cold therapy: post-operative pain, pain from recently injured muscles, joints, and tissues, and repetitive strain injuries. For folks with post-operative pain, cold therapy can help reduce swelling and inflammation at the incision or injection site after a procedure. It can speed up the recovery process and help patients regain normal function after tissue trauma due to surgery. 

If you’ve had a sprain, a pulled muscle, or joint pain, cold therapy can speed up the healing process. Studies have shown that properly utilized cold therapy can shave days off the recovery time for a muscle, joint, or tissue injury. Finally, repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel, tendonitis, shin splints, trigger finger, or plantar fasciitis can all be benefited by using cryotherapy. 

However, there’s another group of people that often use and benefit from cold therapy as a preventative measure: athletes. Lower temperatures can help to recharge their muscles after a long, strenuous workout. Muscle inflammation naturally occurs during exercise and training, which can lead to overuse injuries if left unaddressed. Cold therapy can help muscles repair and prepare for the next training session. It’s why you often see players jump into an ice bath after a football game! It’s preventative care that allows athletes to take care of themselves and improves their long-term performance. 

How to Use Cryotherapy At Home

Like any treatment, cold therapy should be administered responsibly and knowledgeably to get the maximum benefits and avoid any negative effects of misuse. Cold therapy should only be used for short periods, between 10-15 minutes, and can be repeated throughout the day. If cold is applied to the skin for too long, it may damage the skin. In extreme circumstances, misuse can cause deeper tissue damage or even nerve injuries. 

To be as safe as possible, make sure that you are only using cryotherapy for 10-15 minutes at a time, not to exceed 20 minutes. It can be beneficial to wrap an ice pack or frozen item in a thin towel before applying it to the skin, to prevent extremely cold temperatures from causing skin damage. The cold therapy will still be beneficial, but the use of a thin towel will make the process even safer. 

You should also aim to apply cold therapy to the injured area as quickly as possible after the traumatic event occurs. Cold therapy works by reducing blood flow, so it is important to get that process started before the injury progresses and blood flow becomes uncontrollable. 

Cold therapy is also most effective when used in combination with other treatments! Many physicians and physical therapists use the acronym R.I.C.E. to instruct patients on how to use cold therapy at home. It stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. First, you should sit down and take any pressure or strain on the painful area. Next, apply ice wrapped in a towel or cloth. After applying ice, you should attempt to compress the injured area. You can use a towel or ace bandage to wrap the area tightly. Finally, to the extent possible, elevate the painful area above your heart. All of these techniques work together to limit blood flow to the painful area and prevent swelling. 

Anti-inflammatory over-the-counter medications can also be beneficial when used in tandem with R.I.C.E., such as Advil or Tylenol. When using those medications, you’re adding another layer of protection and a new avenue for your body to fight off the pain. All of the elements of R.I.C.E. work to reduce the inflammation and swelling externally, while the medication is doing the same internally! 

Cold Therapy Vs. Hot Therapy

Cold therapy and hot therapy are both useful treatments to curb pain and relax muscles, but how do you know which one to use? Cold therapy reduces blood flow. Similar to elevating a sprained ankle or wrapping an injured wrist, reducing blood flow with lowered temperatures prevents inflammation from accumulating in the area, which would increase pain. It’s best for acute injuries, to stave off the worst of the pain, swelling, and inflammation that may occur. 

In contrast, hot therapy increases blood flow, which can boost the flow of nutrients to an affected area. Hot therapy is generally associated with relaxation and is better for chronic pain or long-term injuries. When blood vessels dilate, blood flow is promoted, which can soothe achy muscles and relax muscle fibers. Hot therapy is most effective for muscle spasms, morning stiffness, and warming up before an exercise. 

For serious injuries and conditions, it’s always best to consult a medical professional on the best at-home treatment and management options. However, if you have a simple achy muscle, exercise injury, or routine flare-up of an existing injury, this article should help inform you on the best technique to mitigate different types of pain!