Most of us are aware that for muscle injuries we should apply cold and heat, but often it’s advice we’ve heard from friends and family and we don’t question why. Like anything though, if we understand why a particular method to relieve pain or discomfort is working, we are more able to apply that effectively and achieve better results.
Let’s start by talking about cold, whether that’s applied with the ubiquitous bag of frozen peas, a cold compress, or a specialised topical cream, Cold is best applied during the first 72 hours after injury. This helps to reduce swelling by decreasing the blood flow to the affected area and can numb the injured part of the body. Numbing the area and reducing swelling relieves pain but can also be beneficial to recovery, which is why professional athletes often take an ice bath after competing.
For ice packs and compresses it’s important not to apply for too long as this can damage the skin, and it is not recommended to apply ice directly to the skin, which is why there are many topical solutions on the market that can be highly effective. Using a topical cream will affect the local area of the muscle or joint injury more gradually but will provide ongoing relief as the active components of the cream are absorbed through the skin.
Understanding the importance of topical formulas in reducing inflammation and overall recovery is key, especially when they contain herbal ingredients. Many plants known to have beneficial qualities, for example, peppermint and aloe extracts which help to settle inflammatory response, have antiseptic and antibacterial properties and assist tissue repair process. There are many other plant extracts with similar beneficial properties, which can be very helpful if used in combination with the application of cold, or after the ice pack has been applied.
When we use heat, we are doing the opposite to our bodies and trying to loosen the affected area. Heat stimulates blood flow by opening small blood vessels, which in turn loosens tissues and relaxes the muscles. So, stiffness in either the muscle or joints, old injuries, and even arthritis can all be relieved significantly through the application of heat.
This is why we ‘warm-up’ before participating in physical activities in order to increase blood flow and loosen the joints and muscles to reduce the risk of injury.
Applying heat topically is already a well-known remedy and adding new (or rather old!) elements such as herbal extracts, allows to obtain more benefits and allow to body to heal faster.
Rosemary and Capsicum extracts, for example, have a warming effect and stimulate the blood circulation, desensitising some neural receptors to provide some pain relief. There are many other plant extracts that can assist the recovery process in a natural way by reducing the pain and discomfort, most of them already well-known and used in traditional medicine. Combining heat application with a well-balanced topical formulation can speed up recovery and make you more comfortable while your body is healing.
Understanding of what happens to the body when cold and heat remedies are used, helps us apply the right remedy to the right situation. Cold to reduce swelling and slow blood flow, heat to increase blood flow and loosen muscles or joints. Both within moderation of course and ice packs or hot towels shouldn’t be applied for more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
Topical creams however, especially those with additional beneficial ingredients can ease discomfort and pain gradually over time and help in a variety of ways when used alongside Cold & Heat approach.