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Most people seem to be their own doctor when it comes to treating sore muscles. But are you sure you really know what’s best for your body after recovering from an intense workout? Hot and cold therapy have long been some of the most commonly used natural pain-relief methods for alleviating soreness in the body post-workout, but if you’re not 100 percent sure which occasions call for which strategy, you may be doing yourself more harm than good. Check out the proper ways for icing or heating your body during athletic recovery, as well as understanding the appropriate times for using each technique:

Cold therapy

For starters, everyone should have a basic understanding of what icing a part of your body actually does. When you adhere a bag of ice to an area of discomfort, the cold will drastically reduce blood flow to that region, which in turn will help lower the amount of pain and swelling you’re experiencing. By slowing down the circulation to the specific body part, you’re also decreasing the risk of inflammation or muscle spasms.

When to use ice

Typical reasons for using cold therapy for an injury are when a sprain, bruise or bump has developed, and ice is better applied between 24 and 48 hours after the injury has occurred, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. If you’re experiencing severe muscle spasms or incredible pain in your lower back or neck, icing it may only work to increase the aggravation, because the muscles are likely to contract even harder. Ice packs or wraps should never be left on an injury for longer than 20 minutes, and try to place a thin towel as a barrier between the ice and your skin.

Common icing mistakes

There are also many instances in which icing may seem appropriate to relieve pain or ease tension, but still should generally be avoided. According to, Icing a part of your body before taking off for a run is almost always a bad idea, because you’re essentially numbing certain nerves that signal your brain when pain is increasing, which could result in injury. Another common mistake people often make in regard to cold therapy is only icing their injury for one day, and then leaving it at that. You should be icing that area at least five times a day, leaving about an hour in between icing sessions, and continuing this process for at least another day or two.

Hot therapy

The biggest thing to remember when it comes to using heat as an athletic recovery method is that the warmth is meant to help loosen your tissues up. Once they are in a more relaxed state, the blood vessels will open up, allowing blood flow to the body part to improve. From there, more nutrients and oxygen will then be provided to the sore muscles, causing pain in the joints to lessen and letting your tendons and ligaments gain back some flexibility.

Best sources of heat

The two most routinely used heating methods for injuries are hot wet towels or heating pads. As with icing, it’s strongly advised that you never leave a source of heat upon your injury for more than 20 minutes, and never go to sleep while the heat pad is still applied to a body part. Remember that a dry source of heat, such as a pad, could also dry the surrounding layers of skin. If your injury is more of a slight tightness in your muscle and doesn’t seem to be that severe, a nice long bath in warm water may just do the trick. Consult with your physician about which source of heat is generally used for your type of injury.

Do’s and don’ts

Remember, the primary reasons for using heat in your injury recovery are to treat chronic muscle or joint pain or stiff joints. Here are some of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to applying heat to an injury:

  • If you notice swelling with an injury, you should probably be icing the area.
  • If you have previous struggles with blood circulation or have diabetes, heat therapy may not be the best source of recovery for you.
  • Never use heat on any open wounds or places that have recently received stitches.
  • Avoid lying down on the heating pad.


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