WHAT'S BETTER FOR YOUR PAIN: HEAT OR COLD?
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
These days, keeping active is more in fashion than ever. In fact, it's more than fashion, it's just part of how we live. That's how integral keeping an active and healthy lifestyle has become. People these days have found ways to make room in their already-packed schedules to go to the gym, or even simply to make healthier choices like walking more in a day rather than driving or commuting for most of it. These (literal) steps can have a serious impact on how healthy we remain, and as such everyone seems to have embraced their importance.
However, things don't always work out right, and sometimes we get injuries of various types. Our joints do an immense part of the work when we work out, lift weights, or simply jog or walk. Oddly, we don't always realize just how much, and as a result, we tend to not prioritize their well-being until, well, we're already hurt. Overuse injuries of the elbow and knee and ankle are all fairly common. Fortunately, unless they're particularly severe, we can come back from them fairly quickly as long as we treat them properly.
One popular option for joint pain treatment is heated. While this may sound counterintuitive, there's a reason that certain ointments are designed to produce a heating sensation: heat can have a relaxing effect on muscles, as well as help, lubricate the joints by stimulating the flow of synovial fluid, which brings nutrients to the tissues in the affected joint. The old Karate Kid method of heating up palms -- also seen in different settings when masseurs and masseuses heat up their palms or heat up massage oil -- shows that heat applies to muscles and joints helps relieve stiffness and muscle spasms.
Warmth can be an effective treatment for encouraging the healing of tissue damage, as the raised temperature makes muscle blood vessels dilate and encourages a good flow of oxygenated blood to the muscles. This is likely why most effective heat therapies don't go for high levels of heat, but longer-lasting heat that can help the muscles unknot themselves over time.
The third letter of the RICE joint pain recovery acronym stands for Cold. This is not without merit: cold applies to a joint can reduce inflammation -- remember, cold causes contraction -- and numb the nerves, reducing the discomfort and pain of an injury to a degree. As such, cold treatments tend to be recommended for on-and-off application, with cold packs typically recommended for 20-minute applications at a time.
Cold is known to be a good treatment for acute injuries, as well as for certain joint maladies. This is partly because cold helps slow the production of synovial joint fluid -- the right amounts are important for joint health, but too much can cause discomfort and swelling.
WHICH THEN IS BETTER?
So which is better for your pain? It all depends, really, on what's causing the pain.
Arthritis -- this is caused by the wear and tear undergone by cartilage in the joints, be they the knees, shoulders, elbows, ankles, fingers, and so on. A good moist heat can help here by easing joint stiffness and getting tight muscles to relax a bit.
Gout -- this is essentially a chronic arthritic condition that causes inflammation to affect various parts of the affected joints, typically in the oot. The instep, ankle, and even big toe can feel the burn of gout flareups. As such, ice is the best treatment for these, as it gets the flaring to subside and numbs the pain felt in the area.
Headaches -- the actual causes for these will of course vary, but this is a condition that either treatment can help. Ice can help fight the throbbing head pain that headaches can bring on, while moist heat can reduce neck spasms.
Strained muscles -- these pulled muscles may be accompanied by injured tendons, typically in parts responsible for bigger movements, like the thigh, calves, and back. Both treatments can be helpful, perhaps in alternation. Ice can reduce the swelling and tenderness of these parts, and numb the pain enough that you can rest more comfortably. After the inflammation has been addressed, heat can ease the stiffness of the muscles and tendons.
Sprains -- these are ligament pulls or tears, usually in joints responsible for doing a lot of weight-carrying or work, like the knee, ankle, elbow, and so on. Both treatments are still useful here to different effects: the cold can bring inflammation and pain down, while heat can follow up to relax the muscles once the inflammation has been dealt with.
Tendinosis -- this is a chronic irritation of the tendons that causes stiffness in the joints. For this, heat is what's really needed, since heat helps relax knotted muscles. It might be a good idea to start with cold, at least until the inflammation subsides, leading the way for heat to soothe the muscles afterward.
WORD OF CAUTION
It's worth noting that heat should be avoided in certain cases, such as acute injuries. Heat applied at the wrong times can cause inflammation, and thus slow healing. It's also not recommended for people with deep vein thrombosis, open wounds, dermatitis, and diabetes. As noted above, when using heat, prepare your hot packs for a comfortable level of heat that can be sustained, rather than a high-level blistering heat.
The application of cold should likewise be done with care. Don't apply ice directly to the skin, and keep applications to a maximum of 20 minutes at a time.