Heat or Cold for Chronic Muscle Pain?
If you’ve got throbbing, aching chronic muscle pain, is heat or ice the best solution for your pain management problem? Find out which therapy is most effective for what type of pain.
There are many different pain management options for most every kind of pain — from arthritis to chronic muscle pain. You can try treatments like transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), or medications to ease pain and inflammation. But for two extremely simple pain management methods that you can do on your own, try heat and cold therapy.
Pain Management: About Heat Therapy
Heat therapy can be effective at managing chronic muscle pain or the stiff, sore joints affected by arthritis. Heat works by helping your muscles relax, which can alleviate both pain and stiffness. Applying heat to your muscles or joints also encourages circulation and blood flow to the area, which can reduce pain. Boosting blood flow to a painful area can also help to get rid of lactic acid waste buildup, which contributes to pain.
Here are some different ways to use heat therapy:
Apply a heating pad to the sore area; some come with inserts you wet to create a moist heat.
Try a heated paraffin wax treatment for sore joints in the hands and feet.
Soak in a hot bath or stand under the spray in a hot shower.
Apply a heat wrap to your sore area; some are shaped to contour exactly to body parts, such as the knee, back, neck, and even elbows.
Be careful not to burn yourself using heat therapy, whether it’s with hot water or a heating pad — skin shouldn’t turn bright red. Never use a heating cream along with a heating pad, and never leave the pad on too long.
Pain Management: About Cold Therapy
If you have a joint or muscle that’s so swollen and inflamed that it’s causing you pain, cold therapy is another pain management option to consider. Cold therapy reduces blood flow to the area, which can help to alleviate painful swelling and reduce inflammation. It also has a numbing effect on the area, and it slows down the pain messages sent from your nerves to your brain.
Here are some ways to use cold therapy:
Soak the affected area in a cold tub — just don’t make the water too icy or stay submerged for too long.
Apply a homemade ice pack or even a bag of frozen vegetables (this conforms well to many body parts).
Buy a chemical cold pack.
Soak a washcloth in cold water and apply it as a cold compress.
Limit your skin’s exposure to cold and ice: Don’t leave a cold pack or ice pack on the sore area for longer than 10 to 30 minutes. Be on the lookout for breakouts of hives or skin that turns purple — a sign that you’ve iced it for too long.
Is Cold or Heat Best for Your Pain?
If you’re trying to decide between cold therapy or heat therapy, consider the type of pain you have and where it is, what your doctor recommends, and what relief you personally get from each one. For instance, a review of studies on lower back pain found that heat had a slight edge over cold, and that these therapies often work best in conjunction with other treatments, like exercise, physical therapy, and medication. According to the Arthritis Foundation, either heat or cold may help with pain from arthritis — it may be a matter of trial and error to find which works better for you.
Cold therapy can be particularly helpful if you’ve got an overuse injury and a muscle or joint is swollen and painful following exercise; it may also feel best on a flaring arthritic joint. If you’ve got a sore or painful muscle or a very stiff joint, heat therapy may be your best bet to relieve symptoms.
If you want to try heat therapy and cold therapy as pain management strategies, alone or in conjunction with other approaches, talk to your doctor about what’s likely to provide you with the most relief and ways to safely try these therapies.