heat vs cold therapy

Pain, whether chronic, acute, or post-operative, can be debilitating. It prevents you from being able to carry out your regular daily activities and sports.

“Heat and cold therapy have long been used to help in the management of injuries and pain, but which is best for you?”

Muscle Tension:

Heat is generally used to ease muscle tension. When our muscles are tense, there is decreased circulation and blood flow to the area and increased pain signals. If left unmanaged, muscle tension can result in muscle spasms, joint stiffness, and decreased ROM. This can further damage the muscles and joints involved.

How Heat Helps:

Heat acts to increase the temperature of the soft tissues, including muscles and tendons. As we increase the temperature, blood flow to the area increases delivering nutrients and oxygen that will aid in the healing and repair of the muscle. Heat also allows the muscle to relax to decrease muscle tone and increase flexibility.


There are instances when heat is not beneficial for pain. An acute, or new, injury does not warrant heat because the initial inflammatory process is already allowing for an excess of fluids, cells, oxygen, and nutrients at the injury site. In these cases, ice is often the better option.

Pain and Inflammation:

Cold therapy helps decrease swelling and inflammation that are associated with pain. Following an injury or trauma, the blood vessels to the injury site dilate (vasodilation) to deliver the fluid, nutrients, and white blood cells that help with tissue repair. With an excess of cells at the injury site, the healthy cells end up competing with damaged cells for oxygen and nutrients. When the healthy cells do not get the oxygen and nutrients that they need, it results in cell death (hypoxia). This leads to increased bleeding at the injury site and, along with the influx of fluids due to vasodilation, result in pain and swelling. The swelling further increases pressure on the nerve endings, also contributing to the pain you feel after an injury. Excessive acute inflammation and swelling results in more cell and tissue damage, which can eventually lead to chronic inflammation.

How Cold Therapy (Cryotherapy) Helps:

Cryotherapy interrupts the pain cycle by decreasing the temperature at the joint, which has the following effects to reduce pain and swelling.

  1. Controls the amount of fluid and cells at the injury site
  2. Reduces cell metabolism, which decreases the oxygen demands of the health cells Combined, these two mechanisms reduce the risk of hypoxia, decreasing swelling and pressure on the nerves.
  3. Numbs the nerves, so that they are not being repeatedly stimulated during the inflammatory process.

Breg Polar Care Kodiak Unit For Continuous Cryotherapy


  • Motorized unit that delivers ice water through Intelli-flo pads that are specifically designed for different body parts.
  • The pads regulate the temperature of the ice water within a certain range, so that it is safe to use for a prolonged period of time (up to 6-8 hours).
  • Regular ice packs you can only use for 15-20min at a time before increasing risk of cold injury and a warm cold pack. Cryotherapy is also less effective when used in short bouts compared to continuously.

Common Examples of Use:

  • Post-op
    • Arthroscopic procedures
    • Reconstructive procedures
    • Plastic surgery
    • General surgery
  • Post-trauma
  • Chronic Pain

When you have less swelling and pain following a surgery, acute injury, or with chronic conditions, there is less functional loss and the opportunity for faster recovery.

Talk to your doctor about the Breg Polar Care Kodiak unit for pain relief. A prescription from a physician is required for rental or purchase of this device.

Meaghan Kadowaki, Certified Bracing Specialist
Arthritis & Injury Care Centre

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