Misinformation surrounding cryotherapy (cold therapy) and thermotherapy (hot therapy) is common because many people assume they understand when to use one versus the other. As the leader in hot and cold therapy solutions, we know a thing or two about the technology and application of both therapies. With all of our expertise, we can help debunk some myths surrounding them to help you make more informed decisions about treatment and care.
Myth 1: It’s okay to leave cold or hot therapy products on skin longer than 20 minutes.
When icing or heating an injury, it’s not a good idea to leave an ice or heat pack on the affected area for too long because you can cause further damage to the muscle tissue you’re trying to repair. Icing an injury for more than 20 minutes can also cause frostbite on the skin or even nerve damage. To counteract the cold, our bodies open blood vessels, which can increase swelling—the very thing you’re trying to reduce. Comparably, heat application is commonly used for more chronic injuries. Although heat therapy can help provide comfort to an injury, if it is chronic in nature, you should consult a doctor prior to use or treatment.
Myth 2: Hot and cold therapy is only useful for injuries.
A common misconception about hot and cold therapeutic treatments is that they’re only applicable for injuries or sustained pain and swelling due to an injury. Thermotherapy and cryotherapy have an assortment of uses outside of injury treatment, including:
- Maternity pain relief: During pregnancy, aches and pains are common due to the growing baby and your changing body. Heat and cold therapy can help many women mitigate swelling of limbs and headaches due to hormone changes. During labor and after birth, hot and cold therapy can relax muscles and act as a nerve distractor to reduce pain perception.
- Skin and dermatological conditions: Because cold can constrict blood vessels and tighten pores, many individuals use it to reduce under-eye puffiness, minimize skin redness, and prevent oil and dirt from clogging pores.
- Wellness and comfort: Wellness and comfort are essential to completing our everyday tasks and living our lives to the fullest. Heat therapy can ease discomfort for individuals experiencing menstrual cramps, stomach aches, growing pains, or simply help with relaxation at the end of a long day. Cold therapy is ideal for cooling down the body on hot days or during a fever and reducing sweating after playing sports or for individuals who experience hot flashes.
Myth 3: You can’t use an ice pack for a headache. It’ll make it worse!
When most people have headaches, they’re more inclined to reach for the acetaminophen before they ever think to pull out an ice pack or heating pad for relief. Believe it or not, heat or cold ice packs can be used to lessen the pain of headaches and chronic migraines. For chronic migraine sufferers, cold packs serve to constrict blood vessels and reduce the neurotransmission of pain. On the other hand, sufferers of tension-type headaches may choose heat packs as heat can increase blood flow to the area and relax tense muscles that can cause muscle-contraction headaches.
Studies have shown that hot or cold compresses can help reduce the severity for acute headaches. A study found that the use of a cold compress helps to reduce the pain, while a hot compress helps to reduce inflammation.
Myth 4: Never use hot and cold therapy on animals.
Like humans, animals can experience injuries that may require treatment. Hot and cold therapy can be a temporary relief for your animal suffering from swelling, inflammation, and pain. Applying cold therapy to an affected area can penetrate deeper and last longer than heat due to decreased circulation. Similarly, heat can be used for managing sub-acute injuries (lasting 24-72 hours) and chronic conditions in animals to increase blood flow, resulting in faster healing or relaxing of muscles. It’s always best to consult with your veterinarian before administering hot or cold therapy for your pet.
Myth 5: It’s okay to apply ice to your bare skin.
Regardless of how little time you leave ice on the skin, it’s not a good idea to place it directly on there in the first place. Using ice or an ice pack directly on the skin can cause severe frostbite in minutes with long-lasting effects. When ice comes in contact with skin, it forms ice crystals on skin cells and decreases blood flow, depriving the tissues of oxygen that produces underlying and permanent damage. Instead, use a protective layer such as a cloth or a sleeve into which you can insert your hot or cold pack. Alternatively, you could use direct to skin products such as clay wraps or oat bags that are made with a soft fabric.
Myth 6: Ice packs are safe to use on open wounds.
Using thermotherapy or cryotherapy on a skin laceration is not safe. Skin is much more vulnerable to freezing without the top layers of the skin acting as a protective barrier, and heat application can increase blood flow, causing further bleeding. Additionally, unintended bacteria could enter the wound, causing more damage or a slower and more painful healing process. Always consult a doctor before using at-home treatments for an open wound.
Myth 7: It’s okay to use hot and cold therapy for my children.
While we’re not ones to hand out parenting advice, we don’t recommend using hot and cold therapy for an injury on children under two. However, thermotherapy and cryotherapy can be great treatments for stomach discomfort, fevers, and growing pains in children over the age of two. Remember, when using heat or ice on a child, always be present to monitor the application.
Myth 8: Instant cold packs or hot packs are safe to refreeze.
Unfortunately, you cannot refreeze a single-use instant cold pack because it’s chemically impossible and potentially unsafe. Instant cold packs are made up of internal bags: One containing water and the other holding a chemical like calcium ammonium nitrate. When you shake the pack, the two substances combine, leading to an endothermic reaction. This reaction is what causes the pack to turn cold for several minutes. Attempting to reuse a cold pack can cause wear on the external bag and possible leakage of the chemicals inside.
Myth 9: Using an ice pack for a concussion won’t help.
Although there’s no effective medical treatment that can lessen the severity of a concussion or brain injury, using an ice pack on the affected area as soon as the injury occurs can aid in instant pain relief. Using an ice pack can be useful for a concussion as it can absorb the heat from the head and reduce swelling in the area, which can possibly result in faster recovery time.
Myth 10: You should use only ice or only heat on an injury, not both.
Generally, the type of therapy used on an injury will depend on the injury itself. For acute injuries or single-traumatic-event injuries such as fractures, sprains, or dislocations, use ice to reduce pain and inflammation. Heat is most effective for muscle pain or stiffness to release tightness and relax muscles. Moreover, according to Harvard Health, injuries such as muscle strain can benefit from heat and ice in an alternating pattern to reduce swelling and then increase circulation.