Bridge to Health Blog
Bridge to Health Blog

Using hot/cold water and ice for burns, muscle sprains and migraines

Written by Rob Allport   Posted in:Sports Injury   May 27, 2008

One of the oldest, cheapest and most powerful remedies available to man is widely forgotten or misused today – we are referring here to hot and cold water, and treatments known as hydrotherapy.

As holistic osteopaths, we routinely prescribe hydrotherapy to support musculoskeletal treatment (treatment working on muscles and the skeleton): well used, water has a unique ability to stimulate the body’s tissues and healing mechanism.

At a very basic level, hot water attracts blood to the area to which it is applied, cold water draws blood away from the area.

A common misconception is the use of a hot bath or hot water bottle to calm an acute backache or joint sprain – whilst it may provide immediate relief, you will feel much worse shortly after, as the hot water draws more blood to already inflamed and congested tissues.

It is important to use hydrotherapy in a specific and reasoned manner – a few helpful examples include:

  • For a kitchen low-grade burn, run the wound under cold water for 10-15 minutes, then apply a lightly-wrung cold water compress (e.g. flannel or tea-towel) for several hours thereafter.
  • For any acute muscle strain or tear, or ankle sprain, apply a cold water compress or an ice-pack wrapped in a paper towel (frozen peas from the freezer will do as well) – apply for roughly 10 minutes every hour until the pain and inflammation abate. After a couple of days, the tissues can then be more actively treated by manual therapy.
  • In the case of more chronically inflamed tissues, hot and cold applications are used to stimulate local blood circulation and tissue repair, and drain waste matter and toxins away from the affected area. Hot and cold packs can be used for localised applications, but a shower head is excellent over a larger area like the back. Apply hot source for one minute, cold for 30 seconds, and alternate 3 times, finishing with cold, then rubbing local area vigorously.

Routine contrast (hot/cold) showers are an excellent form of whole-body revitalisation treatment. For the brave, whole body dry frictions, followed by a cold shower or bath, form a powerful routine treatment to boost the immune system. However, they must be avoided in the case of people whose immunity is already weak or run down.

A final thought for migraines, which are thought to be caused by excessive blood vessel constriction, followed by rebound dilation causing the migraine through increased cranial pressure. At this point, distraction hydrotherapy – using a hot water footbath combined with a cold head compress – can have a powerful effect in drawing blood away from the cranium, and thus reducing or shortening migraine symptoms.

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