If you’ve worked out or suffered an injury at some point, you’re probably familiar with the age-old advice to either “ice it” or “heat it”. However, there’s usually no rhyme or reason to the advice. While there are a lot of benefits to hot and cold therapy, there’s just as much confusion.
It would be nice if there was a silver bullet to recovery – a one-size-fits-all solution that took care of all our aches and pains and left us feeling limber and spritely. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. But that’s where contrast therapy comes in. It combines the best of both worlds – hot and cold – so you can feel better, recover faster, and stop wondering whether that bag of frozen peas is really the right idea for your injury.
So what is contrast therapy anyway?
Great question. Contrast therapy alternates temperatures between hot and cold to treat various injuries and ailments while helping maintain performance. And while contrast therapy is gaining momentum among athletes right now, it’s certainly not new. It’s been around, at least in some form, for hundreds of years. The central basis for contrast therapy is the understanding that cold (or cryotherapy) is really good at treating certain conditions, while hot (thermotherapy) is perfect for treating others. Combining both doesn’t just decrease pain – it provides a wide range of benefits.
Let’s dive into a few.
Heat has an amazing ability to permeate your skin and work magic on the underlying tissue. Thermotherapy can take a couple of different forms: there’s superficial heat therapy using hot packs, heated rocks, or hydrotherapy. There’s also deep tissue thermotherapy that deploys shortwave, microwave, or ultrasound to apply heat directly to tissues.
Thermotherapy also comes with a lot of advantages (other than feeling pretty great). Here are some:
- Reduces inflammation and tissue congestion
- Decreases joint stiffness
- Treats muscle spasms, sprains, and strains
- Improves sleep quality and blood circulation
- Cleanses the body by eliminating toxins
- Increases range of motion
- Slows body aging
Heat treatments are best for people suffering from musculoskeletal injuries like pulled or strained muscles or joint pain.
In contrast, cold therapy is best for impact injuries and helping the body recover faster after workouts. Like thermotherapy, cryotherapy can take several forms. Ice baths are extremely popular among athletes. Ice packs are great for treating specific injuries, and sometimes cold showers are enough to trigger many of the benefits that cold therapy delivers.
And here are just a few of those benefits:
- Speeds up metabolism
- Higher energy levels
- Improved immune response
- Faster post-workout recovery
- Improved sleep quality
- Higher levels of focus
- Decrease swelling
Contrast therapy 101.
There’s a method to reaping the benefits of contrast therapy. The most important thing to remember is to rotate your different treatments. Begin by cooling or icing the affected area. This can be a cold shower, an ice bath, or simple frozen bag of peas. Once the area has been cooled, move onto the heat to increase the blood with a heat pack, hot stones, or submerging yourself in a sauna or hot tub. Repeat this cycle three times, always ending on the cold treatment.
But before you take the plunge, it’s important to know that contrast therapy isn’t for everyone. Pregnant women should avoid heat therapy. Contrast therapy isn’t advisable for anyone with a heart condition, high blood pressure, or kidney problems. As always, we recommend speaking to a medical professional before embarking on a new recovery program.
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