If you're an athlete or just someone who takes your fitness seriously, you might’ve heard of the benefits of doing hot and cold therapy (aka contrast therapy). If you haven’t heard of contrast therapy before, aren’t familiar with it, or just need a refresher, we’ll give you a quick rundown of its amazing benefits and even give you some tips on how to properly and best use contrast therapy to get maximum results.
Let's start by taking a closer look at the basics.
Basics of Hot and Cold Therapy
Knowing when to use heat therapy and cold therapy individually for injuries can be tricky - but what about using both together? This technique is known as contrast therapy, and it's becoming increasingly popular among athletes and trainers.
Hot and cold therapy, also known as contrast therapy, involves alternating between periods of hot and cold to maximize the benefits of both as a recovery method to treat physical pain, injuries, and soreness. Individually, hot therapy and cold therapy are both popular recovery methods and when applied correctly and together, you can get maximum benefits which can help reduce inflammation, improve circulation, and speed up the healing process.
Now that we've covered the basics, let's take a look at the benefits of hot and cold therapy.
Benefits of Hot and Cold Therapy
There is a reason that hot and cold therapy is so popular amongst athletes or those serious about injury prevention and treatment. There are many benefits to using both individually and together.
Let's first start with the hot, or thermotherapy benefits.
Benefits Of Hot Therapy
Hot therapy is typically used for chronic injuries or conditions that are slow to heal. Heat therapy has a number of benefits which include the following:
- Increases circulation to the specific area it is being applied by expanding blood vessels
- Reduces pain, while at the same time relieving aching muscles and cramping
- Speeds up the healing process by drawing nutrients to the injured area
- Helps the body to get rid of waste products
Popular heat therapy methods include hot showers, hot tubs, heating pads/packs, and wraps.
What's important to note about hot therapy, is that it can make inflammation worse, unlike cold therapy, which leads us to our next section.
Benefits Of Cold Therapy
Cold therapy is usually used for acute injuries or conditions that are inflamed or swollen. Cold therapy, which causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels), has the following benefits:
- Constricts blood vessels which decreases circulation to the area short-term and reduces inflammation, pain, and swelling
- Numbs the affected area and reduces pain signals
- Helps to muscle spasms and soreness
Tips For Doing Hot and Cold Therapy
Now that we know the basics of hot and cold therapy and have covered the benefits, let's take a look at some tips for doing it correctly.
1. Listen To Your Body
Your body is good at telling you what it needs, so it's important to listen to it when you're doing hot and cold therapy. If you find that contrast therapy is working considerably well, continue with it and make adjustments based on your specific needs at that time.
On the other hand, if the application of heat or cold is causing you more pain or feels extremely uncomfortable, stop immediately. You can avoid this by wearing appropriate clothing and only using the coldest and hottest temperature you can realistically handle and working your way up (or down) in temperature later.
2. Stay Hydrated
It's important to stay hydrated when doing hot and cold therapy, as it can cause you to sweat a lot. Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your therapy session to ensure that you stay hydrated. You might also want to consider using a sports drink to replenish your electrolytes.
3. Protect Your Skin
When using hot or cold therapy, it's important to protect your skin from burns or frostbite. Don't apply heat or cold directly to the skin - use a towel, cloth, or ice pack in between.
If you’re using an ice bath, shower or similar method, consider wearing appropriate clothing that will protect your skin but still allow the heat or cold to pass through.
4. Stretch During Heat
When you’re using heat therapy, it's important to stretch during or after your session when your body is already warmed up but before you switch to the cold therapy session. This will help increase blood flow and prevent cramping.
5. Don't Underuse Heat
A common mistake people make in contrast therapy is underusing heat by not using water (or other method) that is hot enough. When you're using heat therapy, don't be afraid to use it for longer periods of time or turn up the heat a little more. The benefits of heat therapy are cumulative, so the longer you use it the better. Just make sure that you're listening to your body and only use as much heat as you can handle. As you continue to use it in the long-run, start turning up the heat little by little.
6. Try to Increase Contrast Intensity as You Go
When doing contrast therapy, it's important to gradually increase the intensity of both the heat and cold applications to build the contrast. With both hot and cold, start with temperature you can handle and start
7. Finish With Cold Therapy
When you're completing your hot and cold therapy session, always finish with cold therapy. If you finish with heat, it may worsen swelling and inflammation. If you don’t have either swelling or inflammation you may consider ending with heat but we highly recommend finishing with cold as you begin your contrast therapy journey.
8. Know That The Pain May Return At First
In the early days of your hot and cold therapy sessions, it's normal for the pain to return after several hours. However, this doesn't mean that the therapy hasn't worked - with time, the pain should grow less severe and get slower to return. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Other Safety Considerations
There are a few other safety considerations that you should keep in mind when doing hot and cold therapy:
- Don't use cold or heat therapy on open wounds.
- If you have any kind of heart condition, consult with your doctor before using either heat or cold therapy.
- As we mentioned before, do not apply ice directly to the skin - always use a towel, cloth, or ice pack in between.
- If you start to feel dizzy, nauseous, or lightheaded during your therapy session, stop immediately and consult with your doctor.
Better Together: Hot and Cold Therapy
Alternating hot and cold therapy goes beyond the benefits you’d get from heat or ice alone. Contrast therapy is a great recovery combination to treat injuries, speed up the healing process, and reduce pain for both chronic conditions and acute injuries. It’s a great option for most people since it’s easy and treats so many conditions - so what are you waiting for? Try using hot and cold therapy today!
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