Should You Use Heat or Cold on a Muscle Strain?
By: Dr. Kristie
If you’re serious about fitness, you’ve probably had your share of muscle soreness and strains. All it takes is a sudden movement of an unconditioned muscle to leave you with days of pain and discomfort. It can even happen when you’re working around the house. You may reach up to retrieve something on a high shelf and suddenly feel the pain. Ouch!
While rest is the most important treatment you can use to help relieve the discomfort of a muscle strain, what about the application of heat or cold? Is the use of heat or cold packs better for muscle strain treatment or do they work about the same?
Although some doctors recommend heat for muscle strains, the standard has generally been application of cold. Why might this be? Muscle strains are caused by the stretching and tearing of muscle fibers due to sudden movements or overuse. When muscle fibers are torn, it causes inflammation and swelling of the surrounding tissues. Application of cold not only helps to numb the pain slightly; it also reduces the inflammation and swelling which further helps with pain relief. The use of cold for muscle strain treatment is known as cryotherapy.
Has cryotherapy been shown to work for muscle strains? A study published in the Emergency Medicine Journal in 2008 demonstrated that the application of a cold gel to strained muscles four times a day caused a reduction in pain and an overall increased feeling of satisfaction when compared to a room temperature gel. Several animal studies have also demonstrated similar results.
Although application of heat for muscle strains may have some merit, the evidence is more limited. One study that looked at use of heat for treating muscle strains showed moderate benefit although other studies addressing this issue have been less than convincing.
The bottom line? It appears that cold wins out over heat when it comes to treatment for muscle strains. Cold packs or compresses may be particularly important during the first twenty-four hours after injury when inflammation and swelling are at their peak. Immediately after the injury, you may want to apply cold packs for ten minutes every one to two hours to maximize benefits. Once twenty-four hours have passed, the frequency of cold pack application can be decreased to every three to four hours. Although you can buy ice packs designed for muscle strain treatment, a bag of cold vegetables from the freezer works as well.
Before doing self treatment for muscle strain, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor to be sure that a more serious injury hasn’t occurred. Your doctor may also recommend that you take an anti-inflammatory to further reduce the pain and inflammation.