Cold vs heat treatment: Know what’s better to relieve joint pain

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Be it children or elders in the house, joint pain, muscle pull or body stiffness can be commonplace. But have you observed that in these cases, there are usually two kinds of treatments that doctors advise. Some may suggest that you should treat it with heat either by using hot water bottles or warm compresses, while some will suggest you to use an ice pack on the area. Well, these are two absolutely opposite treatment methods. Hence, one can get confused and wonder which treatment is the right one. Here is all you need to know about how cold and heat treatments work, and which one is best to provide relief.

How heat helps in treating pain?

Health Shots spoke to Dr Akhilesh Yadav, Associate Director-Orthopaedics and Joint replacement at Max Hospital, who explained to us how heat helps in treating body pain. He says, “Applying heat to a region that is inflamed will widen the blood vessels, encourage blood flow, and help in the relaxation of tense and aching muscles.”

Warm compresses can help with joint pain! Image courtesy: Shutterstock

He further says that in most cases, that is depending on the type of problem, heat therapy is superior to cold therapy. For example, for the treatment of arthritic painful joints and persistent muscular pain, warm compresses are better than ice packs. Unless otherwise specified, heat should typically be applied to the painful region for 20 minutes, up to three times each day. Heat or hot water shouldn’t be applied on any fresh injury or open wounds.

Heat is useful for relieving:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Warming up stiff muscles before any activity or exercise
  • Strains and sprains
  • Easing neck or back discomfort or spasms, particularly those in the lower back.

How does an ice pack work?

Dr Yadav explains that blood flow to an injured spot is decreased by cold therapy or ice packs. He further says, “This reduces the likelihood of swelling and tissue damage and lowers the rate of inflammation. Additionally, it acts as a topical anesthetic to numb inflamed tissues and restrict the pain signals from being sent to the brain.”

A swollen and painful joint or muscle might benefit from the use of ice. Dr Yadav advises that within 48 hours following an injury, it works best. Cold treatment or ice packs can help in cases of osteoarthritis, a recent injury or strains. Patients with osteoarthritis are recommended to use an ice massage or use a cold pad for 10 minutes, then remove it.

Ice packs are great to get relief from pain due to osteoarthritis. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Ice pack vs warm compress?

As we understand how both the treatments work in reducing the pain, we can say that for some types of injuries, heat treatment is best but for some ice packs is the way to go. It can’t be stated which is better out of the two. Whether to apply hot water or an ice pack, it totally depends on the type of injury and pain a person is suffering from.

“Heat facilitates healing by increasing blood flow to an injured region, which also eases muscular spasms whereas blood flow is restricted by ice packs, which reduces swelling and inflammation and numbs the pain,” says Dr Yadav.

So, to sum it all up, an ice pack is better for inflammatory pain but choose warm compresses for joint discomfort that isn’t due to inflammation, such as osteoarthritis.

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