The original application of both cold and hot therapy involved water that had been heated, cooled or formed into ice. Additional substances, such as essential oils, herbs or other local plant-based products, were then added to the water to aid in the healing.
Today, hot therapy or cold therapy may be applied with such methods as hydrotherapy, stones, shells and other tools, topical products, heating pads, cold packs, paraffin and more.
The main reason for using any hot (thermotherapy) or cold (cryotherapy) method is to take the body momentarily out of homeostasis. This process allows the body to respond by stimulating the system to heal itself. Both heat and cold effect physiological and circulatory benefits by causing vasodilation or vasoconstriction, which causes a decrease or increase in circulation and tissue metabolism.
Here are six physiological effects of thermotherapy and cryotherapy.
1. Hot Therapy Is a Sedative/Relaxer
Heat is a natural sedative, and moderate heat will induce relaxation of muscle tissue. This is especially beneficial for clients experiencing tense, sore muscles prior to receiving your massage techniques. Having heated stones, an analgesic or hot towels available is a great way to warm the tissue prior to working these areas.
Full-body hot stone massage, for example, is a relaxation technique, so I advise clients that the effects of this treatment will last longer than the hour they spend on the table, due to the body’s physiologic response to the treatment. The body will take longer to come back to its normal homeostasis after a longer treatment of either cold or hot therapy.
2. Hot Therapy Is an Analgesic
Heat is an analgesic, or pain reliever, just as cold is, and can be a counter-irritant to nerves in a painful area. For joint pain and stiffness, heat can be a beneficial way to loosen up a joint and help increase a client’s range of motion.
Friction strokes are a great way to create heat in a tight area.
3. Hot Therapy Can Be a Stimulant
Short applications of both hot or cold can be perceived by the body as a threat; therefore, the body reacts to this stimulation physiologically. This response affects circulation in the body by stimulating blood circulation in the area of application.
Hot therapy can be useful for clients with chronic pain or stiffness.
4. Cold Therapy Is an Anesthetic and Analgesic
Using an ice pack, slush pack or cold marble stone can be an easy way to numb an area (anesthetic) and provide pain relief (analgesic) for a client.
Cold is an effective pain reliever as, like heat, it can be a counterirritant to the stimulation of sensory nerves in the affected area. Using cold for facial massage can help with migraine or headache relief.
Additionally, the use of cold after treatments of trigger points is an effective way to bring fresh blood into the area and an artificial “cold.”
5. Cold Therapy Is a Stimulant
Ice can be a stimulant when used in a short application. Cold can stimulate the body by taking an area away from homeostasis momentarily. This can be effective when used with inflammation, swelling or most any stage of injury. The key is a short application of one to 10 minutes.
This process can also work together with hot therapy when used in a contrast-type treatment of ice for one to three minutes followed by heat for three to five minutes. Alternating heat and cold brings the client back to homeostasis.
6. Cold Therapy Is an Antispasmodic
Ice can cause muscles that are in spasm to relax. This change in temperature acts as another counter-irritant to interrupt the signal of pain in the pain-spasm-pain cycle.
This method is especially useful if you work with athletes competing at an event.
About the Author
Paula J. Kaprocki, LMT, BCTMB, CPC, is part of a massage co-op in York, Pennsylvania. She teaches a variety of CE classes on using hot and cold stones to providers on the East Coast.