Hot and Cold therapy: when and how to do it?

heat vs cold therapy

Hot and cold therapy is the use of either heating pads or ice packs to treat various conditions. These conditions can include chronic conditions like arthritis or injuries like a pulled muscle that needs to heal. This kind of hot cold therapy is excellent for a variety of injuries because it is easy to do and also inexpensive

The most complicated elements would be knowing which therapy to do, how to do it, and which products to use for it. In some cases, you may even need to use both hot and cold, not just one kind. Developing a hot and cold therapy system can do wonders for your personal health and help to improve the health of those around you.

There are, however, a lot of nuances in how to do hot and cold therapy. In addition, you will need to clarify when you should use heat vs cold therapy. Here we will give you an overview on how to use this kind of hot cold therapy as well as recommended products.

Using Hot vs Cold Therapy

heat and cold therapy

Img source: Therastar

Usually, you can use the guidelines that any kind of swelling or inflammation will require icing to bring it down. On the other hand, stiffness in the muscles or other pain is typically best treated with heat. Saunas are a good hot treatment as long as you stay hydrated, although some medical conditions that suggest you avoid hot weather will not benefit from such therapy. Similarly, varicose veins may not benefit from direct exposure. When considering cold therapy, conditions such as diabetes may put you at risk for complications and therefore not be recommended. There are a few nuances to the treatment, so we will further breakdown what each heat and cold therapy is.

Hot Therapy - When Using Heat

hot and cold therapy

When using heat, the trick is it helps to activate blood flow and overall circulation on an area of the body. It's a bit like warming up before you exercise to avoid injury. That added circulation with added temperature can soothe places that may be painful and can assist in improving the flexibility of the muscles. Adding the heat soothes any affected muscle and will even help to repair tissues.

Hot therapy also comes in two different forms. It can be a dry kind of heat or it can be a moist heat. The trick in both is not to have too much heat but just enough to create a warming effect. As for the difference in moisture content, there are reasons to choose one over the other. First of all, a "dry" heat is one that is considered "conducted" heat therapy. It relies on dry packs, heating pads, and can even include saunas. On the other hand, a "moist" heat is known as "convection" heat therapy and it typically takes the form of a steamed towel, a hot bath, or other heating pads that contain higher amounts of moisture. Dry heat is good for increasing range of motion and addressing joint stiffness. Both forms bring warmth beneath the skin to treat soreness, although moist heat can act more quickly.

How to Apply Heat Therapy

There are a variety of ways to use heat therapy as a treatment. Namely, you should identify if there is a local area, a particular region needing application, or if you will do a whole body session. Using a bottle of hot water or even gel packs that have been heated is one great way to apply the heat to a local area. To treat a more regional area, large wraps or pads or even a towel that has been steamed will assist you the quickest in relief. Using a bath filled with hot water or attending a sauna is what it takes to have the full body relief. Engage in the therapy in relatively short time periods, perhaps 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Repeat at least once daily until symptoms have begun to vanish and begin again with any new injury.

Products for Heat Therapy

It will depend on how much treatment you need and where, but looking for a heat therapy product will ensure you have something on hand for when that pain occurs.

When it comes to heat therapy, the main options are - an electric pad or a heat pack. With an electric pad you usually get more flexibility with heat settings, they are usually larger and, of course, you don't need to worry about putting them into a microwave - just plug it in and voilà! However, like any electrical devices, the pads can be a fire hazard. You'll hear a lot of complains about them melting. Scary. And there is also a greater chance of burning yourself as these pads are more powerful. Ouch. Some of them also warn against using a pad in between the sheets or against sofas, chairs and any inflammable materials...which kind of defeats the purpose if you're trying to relax after a long day at work with a heat pad against your back, or tuck it into bed with you. 

While we do give you an example of a heating pad here, we would much rather use a heat pack. As far as we are concerned, it's safer. Even better - a hot and cold therapy system that allows you to use either heat or cold. Win win! In any case, here are some top heat therapy options.

If you're looking for something versatile, comfortable and with quality materials - this "new kid on the block" offers it all. Check our in-depth review. This wrap has been designed for a snug universal fit thanks to its extra-long elastic strap and large fasteners. Which means you can comfortably and firmly apply it on knees, shoulders, back, hips, ankles, wrists and any other body parts...really. The gel packs are leak-proof, easy to get in and out of the velcro strap.

  • Advanced gel formula allows it to stay hot longer
  • Quality neoprene strap with inner mesh for better heat transfer
  • Snug universal fit thanks to long strap
  • 2 leak-proof compact gel packs included
  • Soft and gentle on skin
  • Lifetime warranty
  • Comes only in 1 size
  • Does not offer compression

This product does a great job molding onto the body part that you want to treat and it also quickly heats up. The light weight of the heater makes it easy to hold in place in order to deliver gentle heat pressure.

The pad has a soft fleece on one side for comfort and cotton on the other for extra heat retention. Its compact size also makes it ideal to bring on trips or into an office.

  • Natural ingredients (white rice & cotton), handmade and pet safe
  • Wide variety of colors
  • Can be used on different body parts
  • Microwavable
  • Compact size
  • Doesn't have straps, so won't stay put if you move
  • Customers complain of smell when heated
  • Can't be used as a cold pack, only a heat pack
  • Cover is not machine washable

This pad features moist and dry options and 3 heat settings: low, medium and high. It comes in an extra-large size 12'' by 24'', and offers a lifetime warranty.

This product can be used for back, shoulder, leg and even menstrual pain relief. Some of the great features also include a controller and a machine-washable microplush fabric pad. 

  • Moist and dry heat options
  • Adjustable heat settings
  • Extra large size
  • Machine washable
  • Lifetime warranty
  • Some customers have complained about the pad melting
  • Some complains about skin burns
  • Can't place the pad between your body and chair, sofa, bed or pillow

Hope this quick overview helps - always exercise caution when using heat, try to keep an eye on your heating pad at all times (better be safe than sorry ah!) and enjoy the relief heat therapy brings.

Cold Therapy - When Using Cold Techniques

hot cold therapy

The other type of temperature therapy is cold therapy. Cold therapy can also be called cryotherapy. Clearly, it relies on the absence of heat and therefore creates a much different kind of reaction in the body. The cold sensation helps to reduce the flow of blood to an affected area. Reducing the flow means the inflammation or swelling experienced in that area will also go down. Nerves can be slowed in the area as well, helping to relieve pain.

Cold therapy is used to deal with tendons and other ligaments or areas which display certain symptoms of swelling and pain. Often, ice baths or ice packs of some kind can be used to administer the cold therapy. Sometimes a cooling spray or other product can also produce an effective sensation. There are times when cold therapy may not be useful, however, such as when an individual already experiences a lack of certain senses, possibly when they suffer from diabetes or other diseases which could accelerate problematic sensations, if their circulation is already poor, and when the joints and muscles have a stiffness to them.

How to Apply Cold Therapy

If you are at home and treating an injury or pain of some sort, the easiest solution would be to use an ice pack. Because the ice pack can be particularly harsh on the skin, try wrapping it with a towel of some kind before applying it to the area in pain. The cold will still transfer to the area. In addition, direct application can cause some minor damage to the tissues and the skin where it is placed. You should, however, be sure to use the cold therapy immediately after an injury to help mitigate issues caused by swelling. Cold compression therapy can do wonders for injuries if done in the right capacity.

The question about heat vs cold therapy then becomes: How often should you use cold therapy after the initial application? The answer to that question is that you can use cold therapy repeatedly. It can be applied more than once per day - as many times, really, as needed to address chronic pain or a new injury. The key is to not apply the cold for too long of a period of time. Typically an application that lasts from 10 minutes to about 15 minutes is going to produce the best results when it comes to cold compression therapy. Adding the cold for 20 minutes or longer can become too long and risk damaging the skin, underlying tissues, or even the nerves. Elevating an area while icing it is another way to improve the results of a session of cold therapy treatment.

Products for Cold Therapy

Cold therapy is similar to hot therapy in that you can use small products at home as well as facilities that specialize in treatments. For example, just as hot therapy can utilize a sauna, cold therapy can also utilize a large ice bath. Ice baths can to some degree be recreated in the home by running cold water and adding large amounts of bagged ice; however, you may find it more convenient and simple to merely add ice packs to a localized injury. Spraying on gels with an icing power is another way to relieve pain, but using a good ice pack product that can be refrozen and reused is probably the most cost effective way to treat an injury or to repeatedly treat chronic, localized pain. The best reusable ice packs can be hard to identify with so many products on the market. If you're looking for a cold therapy option to use at home, here are some of the best reusable ice packs we have found that you may be interested in checking out:

And back to our heat category winner: versatile, comfortable and with quality materials - this "new kid on the block" offers it all. Check our in-depth review. This wrap has been designed for a snug universal fit thanks to its extra-long elastic strap and large fasteners. Which means you can comfortably and firmly apply it on knees, shoulders, back, hips, ankles, wrists and any other body parts...really. The gel packs are leak-proof, easy to get in and out of the velcro strap. And unlike its competitors, it doesn't leak and doesn't get rock hard after freezing. Pretty amazing!

  • Advanced gel formula allows it to stay cold longer
  • Stays flexible when cold
  • Snug universal fit thanks to long strap
  • 2 leak-proof compact gel packs included
  • Soft and gentle on skin
  • Lifetime warranty
  • Comes only in 1 size
  • Does not offer compression

A nice feature of this product is that it comes in four different sizes based on your individual needs. Professional grade gel interior of a specialized composition give the product the ability to stay colder longer.

The thick nylon exterior and double seal prevents leaks and provides posterity. It is also washable.

  • Variety of sizes
  • Double seal for leak-proof
  • Washable
  • Satisfaction guaranteed
  • Stiff when taken out of the freezer
  • Doesn't come with straps, so hard to mold to knees, shoulders, etc.
  • Only works for cold therapy, not heat
  • Warms up rather quickly

This product comes with a strap, so you can apply it on any body part. All the ice pack needs is a couple of hours in the freezer before use. It is recommended to place a cloth over the ice pack though before application because it tends to get a notch too cold.

Comes with a lifetime warranty and 2 gel packs are included. It can also be used for heat therapy - just pop it into a microwave.

  • Strap for adjustable application
  • Heat or cold therapy
  • 2 gel packs included
  • Lifetime warranty
  • Size can be rather small
  • Becomes pretty hard when frozen
  • You may experience some leaking
  • The heat/cold isn't distributed evenly inside the pack

All of these cold pack options are quality products, although each comes with its own niche qualities which could make one more favorable over another. It is also possible that you may need to invest in a variety of products to keep on hand.

Hot and cold therapy is an easy technique to alleviate pain, but not everyone understands how to use it or which products are the best choices. We hope this information gives you the background you need to start practicing these healing methods in your own home. Investing in a regular therapeutic schedule will deliver the best results for chronic pain. Likewise, knowing whether to use heat or cold during a sudden injury can reduce long lasting pains and possibly prohibit an injury from developing into a chronic pain in the future. Furthermore, this information on how to do hot and cold therapy will help you develop a hot and cold therapy system and to decide what products you should keep on hand for in the home or for in a First Aid kit so that you're prepared in the event of a sports injury or unexpected pulling of a muscle doing simple chores around the house.

If you are looking for knee ice packs specifically - take a look at our list of best knee ice packs.