Using Cold and Heat Therapies
Cold and heat therapies are treatments that use cold or heat to help with pain, soreness, muscle spasms, swelling, and inflammation. There are different ways you can do cold and heat therapies. For example, you might use an ice pack for cold therapy or an electric heating pad for heat therapy.
Most people like to use cold therapy for the first few days after a procedure or surgery. And they often use it right away after an injury, such as a sprain or strain. They also tend to use cold for swelling or inflammation. Some people prefer to use heat for muscle spasms.
Either cold or heat therapy may help with arthritis pain, cancer pain, low back pain, or soreness after exercise. Try both and see what works best for you. You might also try switching between cold and heat.
If you had a procedure or surgery, talk to your doctor about which therapy they recommend.
Be careful when using cold and heat therapies
Avoid using cold and heat therapies:
- On broken skin.
- While you are sleeping.
- On your belly if you are pregnant.
- On an area where you have poor blood flow or numbness.
- Directly on your skin. Place a thin cloth between your skin and the cold or heat pack.
One way to safely use cold and heat therapies is to use them 10 to 20 minutes at a time, several times a day.
Here are some types of cold therapy. If you use an ice towel, ice pack, or cold pack, put a thin cloth between the towel or pack and your skin.
- Ice towel. Wet a towel with cold water, and squeeze it until it is just damp. Fold the towel, place it in a plastic bag, and freeze it for 15 minutes. Remove the towel from the bag and place it on the injured or sore area.
- Ice pack. Put about 1 lb (0.5 kg) of ice in a plastic bag or ice pack you buy at the store. Add enough water to barely cover the ice. Squeeze the air out of the bag and seal it. Apply the ice pack to the affected area.
- Use a bag of frozen peas or corn. They are inexpensive, last 10 to 20 minutes, and mold well to your body.
- Mix 3 cups (710 mL) water and 1 cup (235 mL) rubbing alcohol in a freezer bag. Seal the bag and place it in the freezer until slush forms. Refreeze the bag when the slush melts.
- Buy cold packs that can be reused. Store them in your freezer. Some of them are designed to wrap around an injured area, such as an arm or a knee.
- Ice bath. To make an ice bath, fill a bathtub about halfway with cold water and ice. Ice baths are most often used by athletes. Check with your doctor before using one. They can cause dangerously low body temperatures, heart problems, and frostbite.
- Cold therapy machine. This is sometimes called "iceless therapy" because ice isn't used directly on your body. A small cooler holds ice and water. A pad wraps around the part of your body that you are treating. Cold water runs through a tube between the cooler and the pad. Follow the instructions that come with the machine.
You can choose from several types of heat therapy.
- Microwavable pack. These are cloth bags filled with gel or with grains, such as wheat or rice. You can make a grain-filled pack at home. Put a thin cloth between the hot pack and your skin.
- Disposable heating patch. This is a single-use patch that cannot be reheated. It's made to stick to your skin. If it's too hot, try using it over your clothing.
- Hot water bottle. Fill the bottle about one-half full to keep it flexible. To protect your skin, use a water bottle with a removable cloth cover.
- Heating pad. Avoid falling asleep with an electric heating pad on. To protect your skin, use a heating pad with a cloth cover.
- Steam towel. Soak a towel in water, and wring it out. Place the damp towel in the microwave for about 30 seconds. If the towel feels too hot, let it cool off for a few minutes. Check it again before using.
- Warm bath. You could also try taking a warm shower.
- Paraffin baths. This is made of hot wax and mineral oil melted together. You can dip part of your body, such as your feet or hands, into the wax mixture. Or you can brush it on.
- Infrared lamp. Avoid touching the hot lamp. Use clothing or dry towels to protect areas of your skin that aren't being treated.
Current as of: November 1, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Heather Quinn MD - Family Medicine
Kenneth J. Koval MD - Orthopedic Surgery, Orthopedic Trauma