Healthy Hints – an ongoing series of sidebar articles on good health tips
Heat Or Ice – Thermotherapy For Everybody
You’ve put in a good day chopping wood and carrying water. Now your shoulders are sore, your back wants to secede from the union, and your dogs are barking. You’ve done something to your left knee and it’s larger than it should be. Heat and ice both seem like a good idea – but which helps with which?
Thermotherapy – the application of different temperatures, either hot or cold – is as old as the first hominid sticking sore feet in a creek, or turning his aching back to the fire. Both are excellent remedies when used properly; both, when used improperly, can do more harm than good. Fortunately the rules for when to use which are simple and easy.
Heat brings several forms of relief to bear on fatigued, overused tissues. It opens up blood vessels under the skin, bringing a rush of nutrients to the area and whisking away the metabolic waste products of honest hard work. It sedates and relaxes the nervous system, allowing tight muscles to let go. Use heat on areas that are tired, exercise-sore, tight, or stressed.
Do not use heat on areas that are injured, torn, swollen, hot, or have open wounds. The additional blood, opening of capillaries, and increased activity caused by heat would be counter-productive and possibly painful.
Ice is Nature’s anti-inflammatory. The application of cold penetrates much deeper than heat. It physically freezes out pain signals along nerve pathways, decreases swelling, and stops the processes of inflammation that cause more swelling and nerve pain. Use cold on injuries, hot and swollen areas, strains, and sprains.
Do not use ice on fragile tissues, or on areas of poor circulation or decreased sensation. Do not use ice for longer than fifteen minutes every hour to avoid actually freezing anything. That would be bad.
Remember! If you need to use ice, then you also need to show your injury to a doctor.
The best ways to apply heat are: a hot water bottle, electric heating pad, a microwave beanbag, a sauna, and my personal favourite – a hot spring.
The best ways to use cold are: ice cubes in a plastic bag, a basin of cold water with ice cubes in it, or a first-aid freezer pack. Frozen veggies, although popular and convenient, don’t work too well for serious thermotherapy.
Heat and cold are two of the most basic tools in the home health cornucopia. Used properly, according to simple rules, they are invaluable in helping us help ourselves – just like our ancestors have been doing since time began.