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Topic: Body - May 10 2024
Hot or Cold? A Temperature Guide to Recovery

Should we reach for an ice pack or a heating pad? The answer is… it depends. This article will dive into the science behind each form of therapy with advice from VIS Expert and Emergency Medicine Physician, Leah Roberts, MD. Whether we are dealing with a sprain or soreness, understanding when to use ice or heat can help us speed up our recovery.

By: Eden Horton

VIS Creator

& Leah Roberts, MD

VIS Expert

Topic: Body

May 10 2024

As athletes, we are constantly told to relieve our muscles by putting an ice pack or a heating pad on the area of inflammation. But it’s important to keep in mind that not every ache or injury should be treated in the same way. Some of us may benefit from ice therapy, some from heat therapy, and some both. VIS Expert and Emergency Medicine Physician, Leah Roberts, MD, tells us about the differences between the two methods and informs us that there are benefits to both.

Types of Cold Therapies

Ice packs are convenient and easy to use. They provide targeted therapy to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. Ice baths provide relief for the whole body and help to reduce muscle soreness overall. And old compression sleeves combine two useful recovery techniques: compressing and cooling the muscles at once, which  helps to recuperate overworked muscles. 

Benefits of Cold Therapies

Cold therapies cause “constriction of the blood vessels, or vasoconstriction,” according to Roberts, which is theorized to “reduce swelling and tissue breakdown.” As a result, ice baths or focused application of ice can “help with post-workout pain and inflammation, and help prevent DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness that can occur 12-72 hours post-exercise).” Roberts recommends using cold therapies directly after hard workouts for best results. 

“Ice therapy causes constriction of the blood vessels, helping with post-workout pain and inflammation. Contrastingly, heat causes dilation of blood vessels which promotes increased blood flow and allows more oxygen and signaling molecules to reach the damaged tissues.”

Leah Roberts, MD, VIS Expert and emergency medicine physician

Types of Heat Therapies

Heating pads, like ice packs, are convenient and great for on-the-go recovery. They come in all different shapes and sizes and help soothe muscles. Hot baths and showers provide a relaxing way to loosen muscles and relieve stress, and saunas promote circulation to the muscles through the use of dry heat.

Benefits of Heat Therapies

According to Roberts, heat causes expansion or “dilation of blood vessels, which promotes increased blood flow.” High levels of heat can dehydrate the body, so  Roberts recommends that we wait “several hours after a workout to rehydrate and refuel” before engaging in full-body heat sessions such as saunas. Heating pads are also most effective “a few hours after exercise,” Roberts says. Both full-body and localized heat therapies aid recovery.

For heating pads, Roberts recommends this one, which combines red light therapy with heat.

Why Not Both?

Combining cold and hot therapies, known as contrast recovery, is also a great option. Roberts tells us that this method creates a “vascular pumping effect” that has been shown in studies to “help improve oxygenation and recovery better than ice alone.”

Steps for contrast therapy:

For localized recovery, Roberts suggests “repeating (4 min heat: 1 min cold) for a total of 30 minutes. This can be done with a specific injured body part, like an ankle or wrist, at home using 2 tubs of water (1 hot: 38-40C, 1 cold: 8-10C).”

Understanding the differences between cold and heat therapies can enhance our recovery processes. With Roberts’ tips, we can effectively incorporate these methods into our post-workout routines to optimize performance!

Take Action

Interested in learning more about heat therapy? Check out this article: Sauna: The Recovery Tool We Didn’t Know We Needed.