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When To Use A Hot And Cold Compress: Avoid Making Your Injury Worse
  • During a global health pandemic, going to the emergency room is one of the last things you'd want to do unless you absolutely need to. You'd feel better and so much more at ease if you can treat a simple ache or pain at home.

    One of the essential first-aid reliefs for pain or inflammation is a compress. A compress is usually a cloth or bag that is applied to an area of the body for a particular time. It can be hot or warm or cold and wet. They can help alleviate the following conditions:

    • Sports injuries, such as muscle and ankle sprains
    • Tendinitis (irritation in the tendons following activity or exercise)
    • Acute injuries that happened within the last 48 hours
    • Sore muscles
    • Joint pain
    • Stiffness of the neck
    • Spasms
    • Back pain
    • Cramps

    Hot compress vs. cold compress

    Hot and cold compress each have their own purpose. Using a hot or cold compress for the wrong purpose may aggravate your injury or condition. In some cases, alternating warm and cold compresses can help increase blood flow to the injury site.

    Warn and hot compresses use heat and improves blood circulation and blood flow to a particular area of the body. Heat therapy is typically used to help soothe joints, relax muscles, and help heal damaged tissue. There are two types of hot compresses: dry heat (e.g., heating pads, hot water bottles, saunas) and moist heat (e.g., steamed towels, moist heating packs, hot baths)

    Ice packs or cold compresses numb the pain by reducing blood flow and sometimes nerve activity in a particular area of the body. This helps stop bleeding and reduces swelling or inflammation, which causes pain and soothes the joints and relax muscles. Typically, a cold compress is applied through the use of ice packs and frozen gel packs, massaging an area with an ice cube, or ice baths.

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    When do you use an ice pack or cold compress

    For fresh acute injuries or injuries that happened withint 48 hours (say, you dropped a paperweight on your foot), apply the cold compress as soon as possible. Do so for short periods, about ten to 15 minutes at a time, and prop up the affected area for better results.

    Make sure to wrap the ice pack or frozen ice gel pack with a towel. Never apply frozen things directly onto the skin. Don't use a cold compress for longer than 20 minutes. Placing an ice pack on the affected area for too long may result in skin, tissue, or nerve damage. 

    Individuals with heart issues should consult their doctor first before using cold therapy. If cold compress does not improve your injury or reduce swelling within 48 hours, call your doctor.

    When do you use a warm or hot compress

    Hot compress is typically used for chronic aches and pain. It may be applied to the affected area for more extended periods. The American College of Rheumatology also suggests applying hot compress on the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes to relieve stiff joints and tense muscles. Taking a warm bath for at least 30 minutes can also help relieve moderate to severe pain.

    Don't use a warm or hot compress if the affected area has an open wound, or if it is bruised or appears red, irritated, or swollen (or all of the above). If you have a heart disease of hypertension or if you're pregnant, consult a doctor before using heat therapy.

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    Steer clear of hot compresses if you have diabetes, dermatitis, vascular diseases, deep vein thrombosis, and multiple sclerosis. These conditions place you at higher risk for burns and complications due to heat application.

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    Check for changes in skin when using a hot or cold compress

    When applying a hot or cold compress, it's normal for your skin to look a little pinker or redder. Check the skin of the affected area often when using a hot or cold compress. Before placing the compress back onto your skin, wait a few minutes to let your skin return to its normal color and temperature.

    If your skin is exposed to temperature that is too extreme, call your doctor immediately. These signs may indicate skin damage :

    • Purplish-red, dark red, or spotty red and white color
    • Hives
    • Swelling
    • Blisters

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