You may think that cold vs hot therapy for foot pain doesn’t matter. Just choose one or the other, right?
The truth is, there is a good way and a bad way to treat injuries with these two treatments. So, what wins between ice vs heat for foot pain?
Here’s what we know about how each one affects the body and how that applies to treating injuries effectively.
When Should I Ice an Injury?
You should apply ice to acute foot injuries, such as ankle sprains and muscle strains. Apply ice to the affected area as soon as possible, if the injury has happened recently.
If there’s bruising and swelling around the injured site, then ice should definitely be applied to the area. You should continue to ice the affected area several times throughout the day for the first 48 hours.
If your joints or muscles are sore after a workout, you can use ice to reduce any swelling.
Ice is often applied to areas that become inflamed from overuse. It’s important to note that the ice should only be applied after the activity and never before starting an activity.
Why Should You Use Ice Therapy?
Applying ice to an injury is an effective way to reduce pain, as well as minimize and decrease swelling around the injury. The ice restricts the blood flow to the area by decreasing circulation, which reduces bleeding into the surrounding soft tissue.
Icing helps to settle muscle spasms and cramps, as it slows the nerve impulses to the injured area. The surrounding soft tissue will become numb, which reduces pain and provides immediate relief.
It’s also best to use ice after exercise, and it has been used effectively in the treatment of chronic overuse injuries in athletes. This helps to reduce the inflammation and swelling, which helps you retain normal joint motion and mobility.
How Do I Use Ice Most Effectively?
You want to apply the ice to the injured area as quickly as possible, making sure that you wrap the ice in a cloth before applying it to your skin. This will help prevent frostbite.
Use a compression wrap like ACE wrap or compression socks on the injured area. The ice will help reduce the pain and swelling, while the compression will help keep the swelling under control.
Give yourself an “ice massage” by moving the ice in a gentle, circular motion.
You can apply ice to the affected area every 2 to 3 hours for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Leaving ice on the affected area for longer than 20 minutes can result in frostbite or tissue damage.
While you apply ice, keep your affected foot elevated above your heart. This will prevent blood from pooling at the injury site.
It’s important to note that you should speak to your doctor before using ice, or use it with extreme caution if you suffer from one of the following conditions:
- Raynaud disease
- Impaired sensation from conditions such as peripheral neuropathy
- Poor circulation
What Other Types of Cold Therapy Are There?
Fortunately, icing isn’t limited to using ice cubes wrapped in a towel or a frozen bag of peas. There are a few different cold therapy treatments available.
This treatment, also known as cold-water immersion, is where you submerge yourself into a tub of cold water for 10 to 15 minutes.
The cold water will constrict the blood vessels, reduce swelling, and flush waste products from the body.
Once you get out of the ice bath, there’s an increase in blood circulation as the muscles and soft tissues warm up. This helps to jump-start the healing process.
Gel packs are sturdy, leak-proof, portable bags that are filled with gel that remains cold without freezing solid. This allows the pack to remain flexible enough so that it can mold to aches and pains on your body.
You would need to place the gel pack in the freezer for 1 to 2 hours before use.
Frozen Water Bottles
All you need to do is get a discarded 12-ounce or 20-ounce bottle and fill 75% of the bottle with tap water.
Put the bottle in the freezer until the water is frozen. Wrap the bottle in a towel and slowly roll your foot over it. Use gentle pressure to massage the injured site.
Cryotherapy is a cold therapy treatment that can be applied to one area, or you can choose to do the whole body. You’ll be exposed to extremely cold temperatures for two to four minutes.
For localized cryotherapy treatment, an inflatable splint or coolant spray could be used. If you choose to do your whole body, then you’ll stand in an enclosed chamber that surrounds the body. Your head will remain outside of the chamber as it has an opening on the top.
Research has shown that taking a cold shower can provide pain relief and help relieve muscle tension.
That being said, it would be best to chat to your doctor before taking cold showers if you have a cardiovascular disease or are at a higher risk of heart attack or stroke.
Cold Therapy Socks
Cold therapy socks are made from soft, thick fabric and have lined pockets underneath and on top of the foot. You’ll place the gel packs into the pocket and let the chill provide relief.
When Should I Use Heat on a Foot or Ankle Injury?
You should only use heat therapy about 3 days after an injury, when the swelling has gone down. Heat is better for old, nagging injuries, like a pulled or strained muscle, where you’re experiencing lingering discomfort.
Heat can be used to relieve joint pain if there’s no swelling, and for muscle spasms or tight muscles.
If the pain is sore or achy, and not a throbbing or sharp pain, then you can use heat as an option to provide some relief.
Overuse injuries can use a combination of heat and ice therapy to treat the injury.
You can use heat on the injured site before an activity. This will help to warm up cold tendons, inelastic muscles, and joints. It will also allow more oxygen and blood to flow to the affected area.
Why Should You Use Heat Therapy?
Applying heat is an effective way to improve blood circulation, as heat causes the blood vessels to expand. This brings oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the injured site which promotes healing.
Heat will help to soothe achy or tight muscles, tendons, and joints, which will improve flexibility.
What Is Heat Therapy Good For?
One of the biggest benefits of heat therapy is that you can use it for a longer period than cold. Minor tension or stiffness can be relieved with 15 to 20 minutes of heat.
Moderate to severe pain may require longer sessions of between 30 minutes and 2 hours.
Heat will soothe and relax sore, stiff, and cramping muscles. Studies have shown that it can be an effective treatment for delayed onset muscle soreness—DOMS—24 to 48 hours after an intense workout.
If you suffer from arthritis or fibromyalgia, then heat may help to reduce the pain and increase your mobility. Heat may temporarily increase the elasticity of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
Research has shown that heat therapy has been effective in reducing lower back pain.
A Variety of Methods Encompass Warm Therapy Including:
The different types of heat therapies can be divided into two categories: moist and dry heat.
Moist heat therapies include:
- Taking a warm bath or shower at a temperature of 92 to 100 degrees
- Hot tub
- Warm damp compress
Dry heat therapies include:
- Infrared heat lamp
- Heat wraps
- Heating pads
You should use dry heat therapies to treat localized injuries.
If you’re experiencing widespread aches and pains, or you want the heat to penetrate deeper into your muscles, then use moist heat.
How to Use Heat Effectively
Only use heat therapy once the swelling has gone down and the pain has ceased. Make sure to use a moderate heat level. It shouldn’t cause you any discomfort or make you sweat while using it.
As a rule of thumb, don’t use heat after an activity or if there’s swelling.
If you want to use heat therapy for chronic injuries from overuse, then use a moderate heat setting and be careful when applying heat. Pay attention to how your body responds to heat therapy.
You shouldn’t continue to use heat therapy if your pain gets worse. While you can use heat therapy for a longer duration, you shouldn’t fall asleep on a heating pad or when using the heat lamp.
The exposure to the heat can lead to minor burns and dry, irritated skin.
It’s important to note that you should speak to your doctor before using heat therapy with the following conditions:
- Deep vein thrombosis
- Vascular diseases
- Multiple sclerosis