About Hot & Cold Compresses

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Ice can be used for cold compression.
Ice can be used for cold compression. (Image: \"Ice cube\" is Copyrighted by Flickr user: Jeremy ??? (traveling for about a month) (Jeremy Barwick) under the Creative Commons Attribution license.)

A hot or cold compress can help alleviate pain, but it is important to know which type of compress is best for each pain source. Hot and cold compresses are not always interchangeable, and using the wrong type of compress on an injury can do more harm than good.

What Is a Compress?

Hot and cold compresses can either be store-bought or homemade—which one you choose is simply a matter of convenience. According to EMC Insurance Companies, cold compresses can be anything from gel packs that are placed in the freezer, to ice-wrapped in a clean cloth or a plain old bag of frozen corn. Heat compresses often consist of heating pads, hot water bottles and microwavable gel packs.

The Hot Compress

A hot compress is recommended for chronic conditions such as tight muscles, menstrual cramps and arthritic pain. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, a hot compress provides “heat therapy” which helps to reduce muscle spasms and is applied as often as needed. But heat therapy is only applied to the affected area for short periods of time—usually no more than 20 minutes.

The Cold Compress

UW Health explains that a cold compress is warranted after a recent, soft-tissue injury has occurred. A soft tissue injury may consist of a sprain, pulled ligament or an overextended muscle. The use of a compress for such injuries is known as “cold compression therapy” and involves wrapping the injured body part in a cold compress every two hours for at least 20 minutes.

Two Compresses, One Injury

There are times when it is necessary to use both hot and cold compression on a single soft-tissue injury. The most important thing to remember about any soft-tissue injury is that in order for it to heal, swelling must be relieved. According to Blue Healer.com, this is where cold compression therapy comes in. Cold compression and elevation (prop the injured area up on a soft pillow) will help reduce the pain and inflammation associated with soft-tissue injuries and should be utilized for the first 72 hours after the injury occurs. A heat compress is then applied after 72 hours (only if swelling has subsided) to promote blood flow and induce proper healing.

Hot and Cold Compress Warnings

It is important to note that hot and cold compression should never be used on open wounds, nor should either type of compression be used by individuals with circulatory problems without a doctor’s consent. Heating pads should never be used “hot,” despite their name. A pad that is simply warm to the touch should be sufficient. It is also important to remember never to fall asleep while using a heating pad, because serious burns can occur. WholeHealthMD.com warns that hot and cold compresses should never be applied directly to the skin. A physician should be notified if swelling persists or if there is no sign of reduced inflammation after 72 hours.

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