- What is a warm compress?
- What is a cold compress?
- When Either Heat or Cold Will Do?
- Follow the Guidelines
Should you apply a warm vs. cold compress to an area on the body for pain? It depends because cold and warmth produce two different results. Though both can reduce pain in joints and tissues, ice packs decrease blood flow, and warm compresses increase it. Cold compresses are useful for decreasing inflammation, while warm compresses are good for conditions like stiff tendons or relieving pain in the lower back.
What is a warm compress?
It is simply something that can be used to apply heat to a spot on the body. A warm compress can be moist or dry. A warm compress encourages blood flow to a particular area by dilating blood vessels in the area where heat is applied. The increased blood circulation to tissues:
- Eases muscle and tendon soreness.
- Accelerates the healing process by delivering nutrients to the area
- Loosens tight muscles.
Types of warm packs
A warm compress can be purchased or made at home with items on hand. They include:
- Electric heating pad
- Washcloth soaked in hot water and excess water wrung out
- Gel pack that can be heated in the microwave
- Hot water bottle
- Heat wrap
- Heating pad
When to use a warm compress?
Warm compresses are used for a variety of purposes. They include
- Eye problems
- Muscle spasms and aches
- Muscle injury
- Neck stiffness
- Upper and lower back pain
- Stiff, tender or swollen joints
- Tension headaches
- Sinus congestion
- Earache due to infection
- Menstrual cramps
When not to use warm compresses?
The warm compress increases blood flow to the targeted area, so there are situations where you should not use it.
- When swelling or inflammation is present because heat increases blood flow to the area and can make the inflammation worse.
- For acute injuries because heat can slow healing by increasing inflammation.
- On injuries that feel warm to the touch because it could indicate an infection is developing.
- If there is deep vein thrombosis because heat may increase swelling or force the dislodgement of a blood clot.
- On an open wound or a wound that is still bleeding.
- When there is a skin condition like eczema, which can be triggered by heat.
- Immediately after vigorous exercise because the blood flow is already high. Wait for at least four hours to apply heat and 48 hours for an injury.
- When a medical condition like diabetes exists because skin sensation may be reduced, meaning you are subject to a burn if the warm compress is too hot and left on the skin too long.
People apply a hot compress after an injury, but applying heat before strenuous activity can relax muscles and ligaments to minimize the chance of aggravating a chronic injury or incurring muscle soreness. Apply the warm compress several times a day for best results.
Some of the medical conditions treated with the application of warm compresses include osteoarthritis, back muscle strain, tendonitis, fibromyalgia, boils and headaches. One of the benefits of a warm compress used every couple of hours is that heat can penetrate to the underlying muscles.
What is a cold compress?
When a cold compress is applied, the blood vessels contract which reduces localized inflammation and swelling. Cold temperatures also numb injured tissues, reducing pain. A cold compress should be applied immediately after an injury or when a joint becomes inflamed.
Types of cold packs
Like the warm compress, you can purchase a cold compress or make a cold compress at home. They include:
- Placing cubed ice in a plastic bag and wrap in a washcloth
- Wrapping a bag of frozen vegetables (peas work well) in a washcloth
- Using an instant chemical cold pack that activates by squeezing the pack
- Using a gel pack that is frozen in the freezer
When to use a cold compress?
How do you know when to use a cold compress instead of a warm one? The first guideline is the cause of the pain. A cold compress for swelling brings relief when applied right away to an injury like an ankle sprain. Some of the conditions that can benefit from cold treatment include the following:
When not to use a cold compress?
The cold compress decreases blood flow to the targeted area, which is not recommended in the following situations.
- On an open wound.
- When an infection is present.
- Right before vigorous activity since the cold will reduce blood flow.
- On any body area experiencing poor blood circulation.
- On the left shoulder or around the neck if you have a heart condition.
- On an area that has poor circulation due to a medical condition like diabetes because prolonged application of cold can numb the application area even more and cause tissue damage.
- When there is a medical condition triggered by cold temperatures, like Raynaud’s Syndrome because cold will increase blood flow.
Unlike the warm compress, ice packs should not be used right before vigorously exercising or participating in sports.
When Either Heat or Cold Will Do?
In some situations, you can use heat or cold compresses or alternate heat and cold compresses in contrast therapy.
- When experiencing muscle spasms or pain, including neck spasms causing headaches.
- For joint pain due to conditions like fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
- For back and neck pains.
- For muscle soreness.
- During a muscle, tendon or ligament injury’s healing period, you can apply ice during the first 24 hours and heat in the later stage.
- During the early stages of a bruise, apply a cold compress first to reduce inflammation and swelling by slowing down blood flow into surrounding tissues, followed by a warm compress to disperse the bruise by increasing blood flow.
Follow the Guidelines
There are a few guidelines to keep in mind. One is to only apply a cold or warm compress for a maximum of 20 minutes. Another guideline is to be careful to not damage the skin from a compress that is too hot or too cold. The skin should look pink and not red or white. The skin should be allowed to reach its normal temperature before reapplying a cold or hot compress. Finally, only use compresses on areas where the skin is not broken. If the compress does not bring pain relief, see a doctor for evaluation.