Have you been curious about whether you should use ice bags on an injured body part like an ankle sprain or if, instead, you should use hot packs? Figuring out which therapy for injuries and soreness from intense exercise can be a challenge for many people. Applying heat or ice to injuries can offer relief and improve recovery times—but is it possible to achieve even greater benefits by combining the two treatments?
The process of alternating between hot and cold therapy is known as contrast water therapy. This treatment method often uses two whirlpool baths, one for heat and the other for cold, to relieve pain associated with an injured body part or overexertion from athletic training.
Contrast water therapy is a simple, affordable, and relatively low-risk treatment that can be carried out in your own home, helping you enjoy rapid and natural pain relief for all sorts of muscle and joint aches and pains. Read on to learn how and when to use contrast bathing to speed up the healing process, improve circulatory system function, and decrease pain.
How alternating hot and cold therapy works
Combining hot and cold therapy can deliver benefits above and beyond applying ice or heat alone, but keep in mind that it’s essential to avoid this therapy combination if you have an acute injury or one of a handful of specific medical conditions.
For most people, contrast therapy can provide an easy and cheap alternative to using pharmaceutical treatments to reduce inflammation, boost muscle recovery after intense exercise, and treat pain.
One key to effective contrast therapy is perseverance. When you start seeing benefits, it's crucial to keep up with the treatments until you are fully recovered.
Achieving the correct temperature using ice or heat?
In general, a good rule of thumb is to apply ice first to reduce swelling of an injured body part. Once the initial swelling goes down, switching to heat can provide soothing relief and help promote blood flow for your body to heal faster. A list of injuries and conditions applicable to the rule of ice first heat later is as follows.
- Muscle soreness
- Shoulder pain
- Pulled muscles
- Back pain
- Neck pain
- Knee pain
Implementing hot and cold therapy techniques
Local Applications for Contrast Bath Therapy
One form of physical therapy at home involves applying cold therapy directly to the affected area to reduce swelling and relieve pain. What are some other ways to treat only one affected area instead of the entire body?
Heat Wraps and Ice Packs
You can try using an ice pack wrap for cold therapy when you need to keep moving throughout the day. This mobile wrap can deliver relief almost anywhere and is a beneficial ice treatment for back pain alleviation. For heating treatments, applying heating pads in a wrap provides another way to get relief on the go. What are some ways to create your own cooling and heating applications for fast relief?
DIY Cooling Packs
- Fill a sealable freezer bag with one part rubbing alcohol and three parts water, then freeze.
- Soak a towel in cold water, then place it in the freezer for 15 minutes
- Wrap a bag of frozen peas in a paper towel
- Fill a sealable freezer bag with ice
DIY Heating Packs
- Fill a sock or small pillowcase with white rice and then sew it shut. This reusable heating pack can be warmed up in the microwave for 60 seconds before applying to the affected area.
- Heat some massage stones in a slow cooker.
Total body immersion for alternating hot and cold therapy
Switching between hot and cold baths is known as total body contrast therapy, often implementing cold water immersion after leaving a tub of hot water, repeating this process several times. Contrast bath therapy is usually performed by moving back and forth between a cold pool and a sauna or hot tub.
Keep in mind contrast therapy can be tiring, dehydrating, and potentially dangerous if you are an older adult or have health conditions like heart disease or blood pressure complications. Ice baths can help prevent injury and speed up recovery times. Still, it's essential to watch your skin response signs and check with your doctor before beginning immersion contrast therapy.
It’s strongly recommended to start first with local applications when beginning hot and cold therapy for the first time. If you're considering total immersion contrast bath therapy, always consult your doctor first.
Advice for alternating hot and cold therapy
Contrast bath therapy is mostly straightforward, but the following advice will increase the effectiveness of this method for pain relief and health benefits.
There are numerous benefits to drinking water. While the forms of contrast therapy recommended above are relatively gentle, there is the possibility that rapid temperature changes can cause dehydration. So always drink plenty of water before and after your treatment.
Keep your skin protected
When using ice packs or wraps, be sure to always add a layer of thin cloth between the packs and your skin to prevent burning or damage to the skin from cold exposure.
Stretch during the hot phase of contrast bath therapy
When you need to stretch your muscles or have been advised to stretch often by a physical therapist, always be sure to do so during the hot stages of your contrast therapy routine.
Always end with cold when doing contrast therapy
It's essential to never finish with heat, as it can often worsen swelling and inflammation.
Carefully listen to your body
If your contrast bath therapy routine begins causing you pain, it's wise to stop the immersion therapy. When submerging in ice-cold water, using too intense temperatures can be harmful.
The good news is that you can still benefit from a less intense application method, such as a locally-applied ice pack or running hot water over only the affected area.