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Hot & Cold Treatments for Muscle Aches & Stiffness

By Whitney Hopler ; Updated August 14, 2017

Muscle pain and stiffness is a condition that many people experience and one that can develop almost anywhere on your body–from your legs and feet, to your arms and hands. The pain can range from mild to severe. By changing the temperature of the injured area, however, you can reduce or relieve the aching and stiffness you feel.

Cold

Cold reduces inflammation, pain and muscle spasms by slowing blood circulation. You can reduce both pain and inflammation by applying ice to aching muscles for the first 24 to 72 hours after the muscles have been injured, says the University of Maryland Medical Center. Placing an ice pack (or even a bag of frozen peas) on the painful area for 15 to 20 minutes, three times daily can help. Protect your skin by placing a cloth or towel under the ice. Other types of cold therapy to consider include hydrotherapy and iced towels or other iced compresses. Cold therapy’s effects last longer than the effects of heat therapy, says Spine Universe.

Heat

Heat improves blood circulation. Once more than 72 hours have passed after your injury occurred, the painful area may be soothed by applying heat to it, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. When you use heat to draw blood into your injured tissues, you deliver oxygen and nutrients that the tissues need while also removing waste from cells in the area, according to Spine Universe. Applying heat to the injured area can also relieve pain, increase your range of motion, relax tense muscles, and decrease muscle spasms, Spine Universe says. Low-level heat applied directly to the skin through heat wraps on a continuous basis for at least eight hours can relieve pain more than short bursts of heat treatments or commonly used pain medications, says the American Pain Society. Other types of heat therapy to consider include: hydrotherapy, dry or moist heating pads, hot and moist compresses, and chemical gel packs.

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Cautions

Never apply cold or ice directly to your skin, Spine Universe cautions, because doing so could cause skin or nerve damage. Place a barrier (like a towel) between the cold agent and your skin’s surface. If you use hot packs rather than wraps, Spine Universe says that you should always wrap them in a towel before applying them to your skin, to avoid burns. Also, after using commercial gel packs that are either cold or hot, be sure to immediately discard them, says Spine Universe, since the chemical agent in the gel can burn skin.

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