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The Ice and Fire Approach: heat therapy and cold therapy

Sometimes the best cure for an ailment is a long established one. Humans have used heat therapy and cold therapy since the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, for relaxation and healing. Observed and practised all over the world for over a thousand years, heat therapy and cold therapy provide a natural and safe way for people to relieve pain, soothe inflammation, and recover from muscle tension. In this blog, I’d like us to examine the benefits of both cold therapy and heat therapy, and how you can use both in the comfort of your own home.

Heat therapy 

Throughout history, people have used heat to detoxify, relax and soothe the body. From ancient roman baths to Inuit steam huts, we have long known about the properties controlled heat can have on the body. Heat therapy also known as thermopathy is the practice of applying heat to a targeted area of the whole body, to promote better circulation and a range of other positive impacts on the body. So whether you’re using a hot compress, heating pad or having a steamy sauna session you are engaging in the long standing practise of heat therapy. 

When is heat therapy useful?

Heat therapy can be used to treat or relieve a range of conditions. The Arthritis Foundation advocate heat therapy for arthritis sufferers as a natural drug free form of pain relief for those afflicted. Heat therapy can be used after a strenuous workout or day at work, to help ease sore muscles and avoid injury, especially when used in conjunction with cold therapy

The science of heat therapy

Heat therapy works by stimulating the release of endorphins. Endorphins don’t just help to improve our mood and make us feel good. Beta endorphins are part of your body’s natural pain reduction system. These beta endorphins are significantly increased when the body is subjected to high temperature, which is why you have a similar rush of endorphins during exercise. 

Increasing your core temperature in small doses is known as hypothermic conditioning, which stimulates the brain in a way that is similar to intense exercise. As your body heats up we experience increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. BDNF is a protein found in various parts of the human brain, but particularly in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that is responsible for learning and long term memory). So when you’re applying heat therapy you are not just stimulating a physical response, you are stimulating your mind in a way that promotes positive mental health, and a focused mind. 

Cold therapy

Cold therapy is the practice of exposing the body to cold water. Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is another practice that humans have used for hundreds of years. There are a number of benefits from Cold Therapy. Boosting your immune system, slowing your metabolic system, improvement in mood and reduced inflammation are just some of the potential benefits of trying cold water therapy. 

How cold therapy works

When the human body is exposed to extreme cold your blood pressure decreases, which in turn decreases blood flow to the area of the body exposed to cold. This decrease in blood flow can help slow the rate of muscle of tissue damage and decrease inflammation. This decrease in blood flow can cause a natural pain killing response from the body. This is why cold therapy is particularly effective for managing pain or swelling around joints and tendons. 

Why not both?

Both heat therapy and cold water therapy are effective by themselves for pain management, however they are particularly effective when used in conjunction. This practice is known as contrast therapy. By applying a heat pad or hot water bottle before strenuous activity will make your blood vessels dilate, allowing better blood flow during your chosen activity. Applying cold water after a strenuous activity will constrict your blood vessels. This change in your blood flow stimulates the lymphatic system, flushing out toxins and reducing inflammation more effectively.

This rhythmic change in your blood pressure has been suggested to have a range of benefits, from reduced lethargy, decreases in lactic acid, and a reduction in inflammation and soreness.

How to use Heat therapy and Cold therapy together

There are a range of professional clinics, spas and locations that offer professional heat or cold therapy. However it is possible to practise both in the comfort of your own home. Using heating pads, hot water bottles, or a steamy shower can stimulate all of the positive benefits associated with professional heat therapy. Using Ice packs, cooling gels fresh from the fridge, or a cold bath can provide your body the cold it needs to reap the benefits of cold therapy.

Knowing when and how to apply heat therapy and cold therapy is very important. Heat therapy is best when your body is stiff from immobility. Therefore it’s important not to heat therapy after exercise or strenuous activity. Heat therapy should also not be used on swollen areas as the extra stimulation of blood flow can damage your tissue. It is also important for those with sensory disorders that prevent feeling full body sensation, as risk of injury can be high. 

It’s important to be mindful when using either heat therapy or cold therapy. Listen to your body, and assess what the best treatment is for you. If your body feels tight and stiff, reach for heat therapy. Use cold therapy to reduce the swelling and reduce the painful symptoms of exercise and day to day life.

Conclusion

As with all holistic treatments, the benefits of cold therapy and heat therapy can range from one person to another. However the age old knowledge behind these practices are safe to apply and accessible to everyone.  So whether you’re getting ready for a big run or just want to relax your aching limbs after a long hot day, painkillers and medicine don’t have to be your first port of call. 

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