Cold or Heat for Muscle Soreness

August 29, 2016

    After a three day hike and thirty mile backpacking trip I had sore muscles everywhere. I started thinking about hot and cold treatments to help alleviate some of my discomfort and wondered which would be the best choice and why. My research gave me several options and choices. Let's start from the beginning.... creating the soreness. When we push ourselves much harder than usual we often cause  delayed-onset-muscle soreness or DOMS. DOMS typically starts the day after exertion and usually peaks on the second or third day after exercise. Two of the simplest ways to relieve this soreness is by applying heat and cold.  I wondered which one would be the best for my situation and here is what I found.

Cold Therapy

    When an injury or inflammation occurs tissues are damaged. Cold temperatures reduce nerve-cell activity while constricting blood vessels easing the swelling which can reduce pain, inflammation, bleeding and tenderness. For muscle soreness cold therapy works better than heat if applied within 24 hours after exercise has stopped. There are two types of cold packs that are very effective for this purpose.  Dampen a towel with cold water fold it and place it in a sealed plastic bag. Place the bag in the freezer for 15 minutes and then place it on the affected area. Do this 15-20 minutes 3 times a day for 48 hours. Another option is to fill a plastic bag with ice cubes or a package of frozen corn or peas wrap them in a cold towel and apply to the affected area. Placing ice directly on the skin is not recommended.  RICE which is an abbreviation for Rest-Ice-Compress-Elevate is usually recommended immediately after an injury.

Heat Therapy

    Use heat to soothe chronic pain that comes and goes over time (like lower back, neck or hamstrings) to relax tight muscles. It brings more blood to the area where it's applied and increases circulation as well as loosens the muscles which reduces joint stiffness and muscle spasms. Heat should not be used for the first 48 hours following an injury and it is recommended that one applies heat after the acute pain has passed. A specific type of heat therapy may feel better for one person than for another, requiring some experimentation when figuring out which one works best for you. There are a few ways one can apply heat. Hot water bottles, heating pads, gel packs and heat wraps are just a few. Hot water bottles tend to stay warm for 20 to 30 minutes.  Electric Heating pads maintain a constant level of heat as long as they are plugged in, a heated gel pack will stay warm for about 30 minutes and heat wraps around the the lower back and waist can be worn against the skin and under clothing for a low level of heat for several hours. Placing the heating element on the designated area for 15-20 minutes 3 times a day for as many days as needed as long as you feel pain or discomfort is what is recommended. Before treating with heat, consult a health professional if you have a skin condition, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, poor circulation or a vascular disease.

    Muscle aches are not always harmless, and in some instances home treatment isn’t enough to address the underlying cause. If that is the case then an appointment with your physician may be your next step. 

    Well, I've figured out what I need to do and I hope this helps you figure out what the best treatment for your muscle soreness is too.