HOT, HOT, HOT…Or Cold?

Hot Hot Hot Or Cold

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What beautiful weather we are currently enjoying! Isn’t it funny how the Sun seems to make everything seem better?

All that Vitamin D must surely be having an amazing effect on the constitution of the general public. Normally at this time of year, especially in such wonderful warm weather, we see a slight dip in the quantity of patients seeking relief from The Moballise Physiotherapy Clinic. There are certainly good reasons for this. One is the simple fact that a lot of people are heading off on their Summer jollies in warmer climes. Another good reason is that those niggling aches and pains usually feel better, or go away entirely, when the Sun pops out for a visit.

Why, though? How does increased, and indeed decreased, temperature affect our bodies? Is there a proven effect or is it just rumour, hearsay and gossip?!

There is quite a substantial amount of evidence for both heat and cold treatments. Let’s separate them and sort the truths from the myths . . .

Heat treatment (thermotherapy)
The aim of heat treatments is to trigger and maintain vasodilation. This increases oxygen uptake, accelerates tissue healing responses and increases enzyme activity whilst increasing the catabolic rate. The nett result of these effects is to raise the metabolic rate and improve tissue extensibility, encouraging both repair and mobility. Heat also stimulates sensors in the skin, overriding transport of pain messages to the central nervous system. This, accompanied by increased tissue flexibility reduces overall discomfort and allows increased mobility, assisting in restoring normal function.

Cold treatment (cryotherapy)
The aim of cold treatments is to reduce the temperature of the skin and soft tissue, resulting in vasoconstriction.
This reduces blood flow into the relative area, decreasing metabolism, neural excitability, inflammation, nerve conduction rate and tissue extensibility. This effect is only relevant for up to 10 minutes, after which the opposite effect is triggered – vasodilation – to restore warmth and oxygen supply to the area and avoid tissue death.

So when should you use them and for what?

Generally speaking:

  • Heat should be applied to muscles that are in spasm or shortened to reduce muscular aching and stiffness.
  • Cold should be applied to acute injury or inflammation to calm down damaged tissues that are inflamed, red, hot and swollen.

Before you apply heat or cold therapy, make sure that you can feel ordinary sensory stimulation. If you are unable to feel fingers stroking your skin, you may be unable to feel extreme changes in temperature, leading to a risk of burning.

There are times when neither should be used, though, prior to checking with your GP:

  • diabetes
  • dermatitis
  • vascular diseases
  • deep vein thrombosis
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)

Equally, if you have been using heat or cold therapy for a week with minimal results, stop using it and consult your local GP or friendly physiotherapist for further assessment and advice!

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