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At-Home Hot and Cold Therapy

Enjoy the many restorative benefits

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If you’ve had muscle aches, menstrual cramps, or painful injuries, you may have used hot or cold therapy. Simply put, this means using temperature to help feel relaxed and rejuvenated, or to bring about certain health benefits. This can include anything from saunas to cold-water swimming. Ready to explore the world of hot and cold therapy? Let’s dive in (pun intended).

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What is hot and cold therapy?

Thermotherapy (or thermal therapy) is the use of heat, while cryotherapy is the use of cold. You might already be familiar with the concepts. For example, if you’ve ever used a heating pad for menstrual cramps or put a bag of frozen peas on an injury, you’ve employed these therapies.

Around the world and throughout the ages, people have used hot and cold therapy techniques. Ancient Greeks and Romans, for instance, enjoyed bathing in thermal baths and felt that these waters had healing properties. And the time-honored tradition of the Finnish sauna is still employed today; spending time in these heated rooms is considered cleansing and restorative.

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Benefits of hot and cold therapy

There are many different forms of hot and cold therapy, all with different health benefits. In general, applying heat to warm the temperature of the skin helps to widen blood vessels and increase blood flow, and is believed to accelerate tissue healing.

By contrast, applying cold to cool the temperature of the skin decreases blood flow, and is believed to reduce inflammation. However, when used appropriately, both hot and cold can help reduce pain.

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What the research says

  • Heat therapy may help reduce blood pressure in certain cases.
  • Lifelong sauna use has been linked to a reduced risk of heart and neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Heat application is thought to be helpful for pain related to arthritis (both osteoarthrosis and rheumatoid arthritis), menstrual cramps, and lower back pain.
  • Cold application is thought to be best for acute injuries, because it reduces nerve activity, pain, inflammation, and swelling.
  • Cryosurgery is used to remove warts and can be done easily and quickly at your doctor’s office.
  • According to anecdotal reports, using cold on one’s face (such as in facial icing), may also temporarily help reduce the look of wrinkles, tighten the skin, and shrink the look of pores.
  • It’s important to note that hot and cold therapy can have risks, too, and is not suitable for everyone. Ask your doctor before engaging in hot or cold therapy, and always make sure that you follow product instructions carefully to avoid potential injury.

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Try it at home

Visiting a sauna or spa can be a wonderfully restorative experience. Look up options near you—or consider a spa- or sauna-themed getaway. And, of course, hot and cold therapies are used professionally by various health practitioners. But here’s more good news: Some methods of hot and cold therapy can also be practiced at home! Here are a few to consider.

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Using heat

Treatment

Treatment area

Benefits 

warm compress

apply to eyes

treats styes; relieves dry eyes

facial massage/facial oil

face

gently massage face working in an upward and outward motion; stimulates blood flow and relieve pressure

heating pad

muscles; back; period cramps

apply warm pad to sore muscles, back, or cramps to relieve pain

hot shower

stiff joints; sleep

soothes stiff joints; promotes relaxation and better sleep

sauna

whole body

consider hiring a professional to create a home sauna

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Using cold

Treatment

Treatment area

Benefits 

cool compress

eyes

reduce the look of bags under eyes

facial massage/ice

face

specific tools cooled in fridge or freezer can be used for restorative massage

RICE technique

injury

rest and protect injury;

apply ice or cold pack to help minimize swelling;

compress with a bandage;

elevate using pillows

cold shower

whole body

may help decrease fatigue; many people find cold showers to be invigorating

Note: start slowly, with water that feels slightly uncomfortable, and only for a couple of minutes to begin with, or switch to cold at the end of a regular shower.

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Using both

Some people enjoy alternating between cold and hot water immersion, also known as contrast water therapy or thermocycling, either by bathing or showering. Research shows that doing so may improve feelings of relaxation and reduce feelings of fatigue.

Polar Bear Swim, anyone?

Some people love going for a cold water dip every January 1. And some people love doing so even more frequently! A cold-water plunge may have health benefits.

In a 2022 study, researchers reviewed 104 studies about swimming in cold water. They determined that cold-water swimming may help reduce fat in men, as well as insulin resistance; the study authors, however, said more research needs to be done.

Want to improve your skin further?

Consider upping your skincare game by adding a serum. Serums can have hydrating, soothing, and antioxidant properties. These days, you can even find innovative serums that contain CBD. Although more research is necessary, studies suggest that topical CBD may act as an anti-inflammatory and help relieve acne.

Saunas as “Intangible Cultural Heritage”

There are approximately 3.3 million saunas in Finland—and approximately 5.5 million people. So important is the practice of sauna to Finland that UNESCO has placed sauna culture in Finland in the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

Take a cold shower—your boss might appreciate it!

A 2016 study found that participants who took cold showers took fewer sickness absence days from work.

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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD