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Hot v. Cold Therapy: When to Use What? (INFOGRAPHIC)

Author: Rosemary Buckle, M.D.

“Put some ice on it.”

Standard advice for many injuries, right?

But what about heat therapy?

And when is too much ice too much?

An infographic from Northwestern Medicine helps patients understand when to use what for joint pain and injury.

When to Use Cold Therapy

Great for: sprains, strains, bumps and bruises.

Cold therapy is effective for these injuries because it numbs the target area and decreases blood flow. Decreased blood flow results in reduced swelling in joints and muscles. Muscle spasms and pain may also be reduced through cold therapy.

If treating an acute injury (like a sprain or strain), you may want to consider expanding your cold therapy to include “RICE” – rest, ice, compression and elevation. With the RICE method, you…

    • R – rest: limit use of the injured joint or area for approximately 48 hours. Completely avoiding use of the injured joint is best, if possible.
    • I – ice: ice for 20 minute sessions as many as six to eight times per day.
    • C – compression: compress the injured area with an elastic wrap or air boot to help manage swelling.
    • E – elevate: elevate the injured area above the heart to reduce swelling.

When to Use Hot Therapy

Great for: stiff joints or chronic joint or muscle pain.

Hot therapy works by increasing the skin temperature of a target area. This increases blood flow, bringing nutrients to the injury site and removing waste. Hot therapy can be very effective in decreasing muscle spasms and pain. Hot therapy also improves flexibility, relaxing muscles and preparing them for exercise or stretching.

General Guidelines for Hot and Cold Therapy

Limit exposure to both of these therapies to just 20 minutes per session. Always wrap the cold or hot element in a towel or cloth to protect your skin from burns or damage from the cold. Cold and hot therapy can be effective for at-home, short-term therapies. However, you should see your doctor for long-term treatment. A physician can provide you with more specific guidance and recommendations to maximize the results you get from cold/hot therapy.

Schedule With a Houston Sports Medicine Doctor

For other Houston sports medicine needs, schedule an appointment at Houston Institute for Sports Medicine & Orthopedics by calling (713) 756-5546.

Please consult with your physician before undertaking any form of medical treatment or adopting any exercise program or dietary guidelines.