Slow down Katy Perry Fans, we're of course talking about hot and cold therapy for muscle recovery! It's getting kind of trendy, which is not always the best indicator for whether or not something is useful, but we think in this case there's nothing wrong with hopping on this band wagon. Let's get into what it is, why it works, and some tips on how to implement hot/cold or contrast therapy into your routine.
What it is... let's break this down one step further; as you know heat therapy and cold therapy are both techniques that can be used separately to aid in recovery. I'm sure you've tried both on separate occasions! Tweaked your back at the gym on deadlift day and laid out on the heating pad that night? Sprained your ankle 'cause you were a little rusty on the ice skates for the first time in five years, so you hopped off the ice and then put it on ice (it was the rentals, we know!). But have you really thought about how... and why hot or cold therapy works (and some instances where it doesn't?)?
Heat therapy improves circulation and blood flow to an area through an increase in temperature. It can be administered as dry or moist heat, and some methods can include the following:
- hot tub, hot bath/shower, sauna, steam bath (moist heat)
- heating pad or pack (dry heat)
Typically, heat therapy has been shown to provide pain relief, increased metabolism, and increased elasticity of connective tissues. It generally isn't recommended that you use heat therapy for an injury involving swelling or bruising, or on an open wound. Heat therapy can also be contraindicated for people with diabetes, dermatitis, vascular diseases, deep vein thrombosis and multiple sclerosis.
Cold therapy (or cryotherapy) works by reducing blood flow, which can reduce inflammation and pain causing swelling. Cryotherapy can also temporarily reduce nerve activity, which helps to minimize the perception of pain (numbing effect). Some examples of cryotherapy include:
- ice packs, frozen gel packs
- ice baths
- ice massage
- coolant sprays
Cold therapy has been shown to provide reductions in pain, edema, inflammation, muscle spasm, and metabolic demand. When looking at hot and cold therapy separately, heat therapy is recommended for providing relief for DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness, you know how you hurt for days after your first day back to the gym after vaca?).
Contrast therapy, then, as you may have gathered, involves alternating between a chosen hot and cold therapy method. It can be either localized to one area or involve the full body, and may be useful for the following:
- Joint strains and/or sprains
- Swelling (after the acute stage)
- Muscle spasms
- Joint aches
- Repetitive-strain injuries, like tendonitis or tennis elbow
- Sports injuries
- Flare-ups of chronic conditions, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia
- Some pains associated with cancer
- Any other injury that causes swelling or aching
Why it works... much of the empirical evidence we have in support of or against hot/cold therapy is looking at them separately, in different applications. However more recently, studies like this one are showing promising signs for the improved efficacy of contrast therapy... basically, we're stepping away from the question of this or that, and finding that the two are better together. Cycling back and forth between heat, then cold creates a rapid open/close effect for the blood vessels, increasing circulation and blood flow even more than just heat therapy alone.
Precautions... of course, anyone who has any of the aforementioned contraindications should avoid or consult with their health practitioner first. Furthermore, if you're going to DIY this thing, it's important to make sure your chosen heating or cooling method is not too hot or too cold. To put an exact temp on it, hot water should be around 104°F, and cold can range between 45-70°F. Last one, and this one is important, and too often overlooked... if you do try contrast therapy and find that it does not feel right or work for you, ditch it! There are many ways to work with pain and muscle recovery, and no one way is ever going to be a one-size-fits-all... you're the only one who knows how you feel, so make sure you check in with yourself!
How to get started today! The general recommended ratio of time for hot/cold is a 3:1 to 4:1 ratio. So, if you soak in hot water for 3-4 minutes, switch to cold for 1. You can continue this process for a set number of rounds, or as long as the water holds it's temperature depending on your chosen method (maybe you've heated and cooled water in separate containers for one area of the body, or you're taking a shower/bath for a total body experience).
We hope this information is useful for you, and maybe you try out spending some time in the cold water during your next shower! Of course, the ultimate goal is to move our bodies without accumulating pain and injury in the process, thereby reducing the need for pain interventions. If you're looking for smart programming and hands-on coaching to help get you moving and grooving, click the link below for more info!