Friday, August 17, 2012

Don’t Reach for that Heating Pad!

If you’ve ever had a muscle strain or achy back, you probably did what most of us do; reach for a heating pad. It feels good. It feels comforting. But, did you know that it may be the wrong thing to do?

Whenever the body experiences trauma or some type of injury, a complex set of reactions occurs called the Metabolic Response. The metabolic response is a complex interaction between many body systems in an effort to restore physical health.

In many cases the affected area experiences inflammation, stiffness, and swelling. Because the use of heat therapy is comforting to most of us, we tend to reach for it first. However, while it may relax the muscles (thereby easing pain a bit), heat therapy does nothing to address the swelling associated with your body’s metabolic response to trauma. As a result, inflammation increases once the heat is removed and in many cases the pain returns even worse than before.

This is why my first choice for treating pain if cold therapy (Cryo-Therapy). It is a drug free war to reduce painful inflammation while allowing the body to heal itself at a more rapid pace. For example; Cold therapy is helpful in treating some overuse injuries or chronic pain in athletes. An athlete who has chronic knee pain that increases after running may want to ice the injured area after each run to reduce or prevent inflammation.

I think the best way to ice an injury is to use a high quality ice pack that conforms to the body part being iced. If you can’t afford products like ColdOne Cold Therapy Wraps, my preferred option would be to find gel or clay filled cold packs at your local drug store. You can also get good results from a bag of frozen peas or a simple zip-lock bag of ice.

Take care to use a cloth between you and the ice and never use ice therapy for longer than 30 minutes at a time. I find you can get excellent results in only 20 minutes followed by 20 minutes off, and 20 minutes on again. This therapy works best when used within the first 24 hours of an injury.

Once your inflammation is reduced, you can alternate heat with cold, to further increasing circulation to enhance healing and relieve pain.  Alternating application of heat and cold is sometimes called a vascular flush because the heat expands the blood vessels, and the cold constricts them, causing a flushing action.

Try alternating a hot shower with a cold one, a cold plunge after a sauna, or a series of hot and cold towels applied to an area, like and achy back or sore shoulders. The general time ratio for hot and cold applications is three to one; three minutes of heat to one minute of cold. However, always end with the cold application.

Before you go off to try this therapy out I must give you a few caveats. Do not use ice or any very cold applications if you have Raynaud’s disease, peripheral vascular disease, peripheral neuropathy, hypersensitivity to cold, or reduced skin sensations. Diabetics should always use caution when applying ice to their skin. Also be careful with heat applications to avoid burning. Watch the degree of heat of an application and how it feels against your skin. And, if you experience any deformity or inability to use a limb within the first 24 hours of using cold therapy, consult your physician immediately.

All that said, using cold therapy can give you a great advantage over pain and recovery time. So, next time you experience a trauma, be sure to reach for the ice first. You may find you might never need the heating pad again.

As Always - Enjoy Your Life!

John Aaron Villarreal

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