If you are suffering from aching pain because of sore muscles, what is the best way to find relief? Should you apply a cold compress first or use a heating pad?
There are many strategies that can eliminate symptoms of muscle pain, such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or medications, but the two most simple ways are heat and cold therapy (thermotherapy and cryotherapy).
However, which should you use first: heat or cold?
According to research published by the Mayo Clinic, the best way to treat sore muscles is with cold therapy first and heat therapy later.
If you have a swollen and inflamed joint or muscle, you should first try and reduce blood flow to the area which will reduce the swelling and slow down the pain messages being transmitted to the brain. This can be successfully achieved with cold therapy.
Applying a cold compress provides very effective muscle pain relief
Some effective ways of using cold therapy, include:
- Applying a cold compress to the inflamed area - you should apply the cold compress for at least 20 minutes, every 4-6 hours. Do this for 3 days
- Soaking the area in a very cold tub (just make sure the water is not freezing)
- Using a chemical cold pack.
A cold compress can easily be made by filling a plastic bag with frozen vegetables or ice and wrapping it in a dry cloth.
A study published in The Cochrane Library in 2012 suggested that after exercise, a cold bath may be an effective way to prevent and help sore muscles. However, it's worth noting that the researchers were not certain whether there may be dangerous side effects that could affect the person later on.
It is important to remember that cryotherapy is primarily a pain-reliever. On its own it will not mend anything, and, sometimes, if cramping is the problem, ice can intensify the spasms.
Ice is best used on "fresh" injuries, especially where heat is being generated. For back pain, ice is often less helpful. This might be because the injury is not new, or because the problem tissue, if it is inflamed, lies deep beneath other tissues and far from the cold press.
Back pain is often due to muscle knots that can be aggravated by cold treatments.
A hot bath is just one of the ways to warm up aching muscles.
Applying heat to the inflamed area will help sore and tightened muscles relax. In addition, heat promotes better blood flow and circulation to the area (eliminating any lactic acid waste buildup).
Heat is also psychologically reassuring, and for this reason it has analgesic properties.
Heat therapy is usually more effective than cold at treating chronic muscle pain or sore joints caused by arthritis.
In fact, some clinical studies have found that continuous low-level heat wrap therapy (CLHT) can help lessen muscle and joint pain better than oral analgesics, acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
Effective forms of heat therapy include:
- Applying a heating pad
- Applying a heat wrap
- Soaking the sore area in a hot bath
- Using heated paraffin wax treatment
- Using a hot water bottle or warm compress.
Heat should be applied to the area for 20 minutes (up to three times a day) unless otherwise indicated - as in the case of single-use wraps or patches, which can sometimes be indicated for up to 8 hours of continuous use.
It is worth noting that heat should not be applied to certain injury types. For instance, any injury that is already hot will not benefit from being further warmed, for instance infections, burns or fresh injuries. If the skin is hot, red or inflamed, cold treatment is usually the better option.
Some people use heat treatment, often in the form of a hot bath, to stave off the DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) that happen 24-48 hours after intense physical exercise. Although there is some evidence that this might help to a certain extent, DOMS is notoriously difficult to avoid.
Science is yet to firmly establish the pros and cons of heat and cold therapies. Both can be effective in certain circumstances. For non-serious injuries, trying either method and judging its results for yourself might be the best course of action. Every body and every injury is different.
Weight, diet and a lack of activity in adulthood are known to increase the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes. New research using data from Swedish military recruits shows that fitness and strength as a teen can also predict diabetes in later life.