Treat Sore Muscles the Right Way: When to Use Hot or Cold Packs

Therapist hands pinching a woman patient's shoulder

Exercise has many healthful benefits. But, of course, you will be going through many hardships to achieve a lean and strong physique. Muscle soreness is one of the things that fitness fanatics and athletes experience as a side effect of working out.

To alleviate muscle soreness and speed up recovery, there are a few things that can help, including heat and cold packs. But which compress application is superior to the other?

Let’s find out which one is the best to use when you suffer from muscle soreness after your next workout.

Cold Packs

For many years, health experts recommended ice packs or cold compress to effectively reduce inflammation, soothe muscle pain, and speed up recovery. Cold pack application is one of the many forms of cryotherapy, which is a collective term for cold application.

Professional athletes have taken cold therapy to a whole new level by utilising nitrogen chambers to provide immediate relief to muscle soreness after training and competitions.

Cold packs or cold therapy works great for muscle soreness for a number of reasons:

1. Helps Reduce Inflammation.

Inflammation is commonplace in the cycle of exercise and recovery. But when you overdo it, working out can result in excessive inflammation which increases risk of injury.

Cold pack therapy helps in preventing serious injury from developing. Less inflammation in the muscles means a reduced risk of muscle soreness and serious injuries.

2. Speed Up Recovery from Existing Injuries.

The application of a cold pack on an injured muscle part such as a sprained ankle, can help alleviate inflammation and swelling leading to speed up of recovery time altogether.

3. Relieves Pain

Cold packs also offer immediate pain relief from muscle strain and soreness. It works by numbing the nerves and reduce the occurrence of related symptoms.

No matter what type of application you use cold packs on, it is best utilised within 48 hours of muscle inflammation or injury.

Hot Packs

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s heat therapy. The use of hot packs or hot compress is an equally popular method of recovery to treat muscle soreness.

Heat is typically associated with comfort and relaxation. But did you know that hot temperature is indeed beneficial in treating sore muscle fibres? Here are reasons why:

1. Hot packs relax muscle fibres.

While cold application help alleviate inflammation, heat on the other hand dilates or relaxes the blood resulting in improved blood flow. In the case of muscle spasms, hot pack application is the best.

2. It helps in post-workout recovery.

Hot pack application is usually performed by athletes after training and actual games, as the heat helps in loosening tense muscle fibres. When heat is applied to the sore muscle region, the blood vessels start to expand leading to an increase in blood flow to that area.

It also facilitates the transport of lactic acid and other toxins away from sore muscles. Nerve endings are also stimulated by hot packs, as well as stimulate pain signals from the brain.

Research also reveals that hot pack application can help alleviate discomfort and pain associated with delayed-onset muscle soreness in just 24 hours after working out.

Heat is the best option if you are treating exercise-related muscle pain and soreness, but it should never be used for treatment of injuries. Hot pack application on a new injury can speed up the inflammatory process which can result in more intense and more frequent pain levels.

After the acute phase of an injury, which is normally two to three days after injury, you can then use hot packs for recovery and muscle relaxation.

So, what is best for muscle soreness?

Most experts will recommend an alternating cold and hot pack application to successfully reduce muscle soreness. Contrasting therapy works by initially constricting the blood flow using cold pack application followed immediately with hot pack application. The result of this process  leads to increased blood flow to the affected region.

Contrasting therapy is proven to be highly effective in treating muscle soreness. It may be utilised in combination with other muscle recovery techniques such as muscle stretching and massages.

If muscle soreness does not subside after cold and hot pack application, you may need to consult with a doctor to identify the underlying cause of chronic muscle soreness.

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