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Hot Pad or Cold Compress? Your Complete Guide

By Krista Elliott

Aches, pains and injuries are just part of the price we pay for being human. Whether you've wrenched your knee or have a sore back from standing all day, nothing feels quite so good as a hot shower or heating pad. 

But what if the heat is actually making things worse? How do you know when you should be using cold instead of heat, and what's the most effective way to use them? 

The Big Chill

Heat may feel good, but when you've just injured yourself, reach for the cold pack. New injuries result in tissue that is severely inflamed, and adding heat to the inflammation will only make it worse. As well, there are some chronic conditions that involve inflammation, for which you should use cold instead of heat. Here's a short list of when you should reach for the cold packs: 

  • Fresh sprains — Applying ice to a fresh sprain or injury helps to reduce swelling and pain, and also constricts the blood vessels, resulting in less bruising.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis and gout — Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes painful inflammation in the joints. Cold helps to soothe any inflammation and swelling, while also numbing pain. 
  • Headaches — A throbbing head, especially caused by migraines, can be relieved with a cold pad. An additional cold compress over the eyes can also provide cool relief for migraines while blocking out painful light.
  • Tendonitis — Conditions like tennis elbow or swimmer's shoulder result from inflammation in an overused tendon. Applying cold can soothe the inflammation and swelling. 

Bring the Heat

As someone who can never be warm enough, I always welcome an excuse to use heat. So what conditions warrant it? 

  • Osteoarthritis — Heat can help loosen stiff joints and tight muscles caused by worn-out cartilage
  • Headaches —  Yes, I know that I said to use cold for headaches. If you apply heat to your neck and shoulders, however, it provides soothing relief to tight muscles, easing tension. Combine this with a cold compress on your head for powerful headache relief. 
  • Old injuries — Once the intial swelling and inflammation have subsided, residual stiffness and pain in a healing injury can be relieved with the application of heat. 
  • Cramping — Muscle cramps definitely benefit from the application of heat, allowing tense muscles to relax and improving blood flow. 

Regardless of which option you choose, there are a few precautions to follow. Do not apply heat or ice directly to the skin. Instead, protect your skin with a towel, and apply for no more than 20 minutes at a time. As well, use extreme caution if you suffer from neuropathy or have diabetes; you may not be able to easily tell if your flesh is being damaged from too much heat or cold.

To learn more about your health and wellness, see your local chiropractor at The Joint Chiropractic.

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