Applications of heat fill the tissues with blood and increase circulation. Short applications of ice also increase circulation. This is all good!
But longer applications of cold by itself reduce the flow of blood to the area so keep application of cold in an area to less than one minute. (Water Therapy, Leon Chaitow MD)
So what is contrast therapy?
Contrast therapy means taking turns applying heat/hot and cold/ice and it helps in several ways. It increase circulation in areas of tight muscle, increases oxygen supply to the soft tissues and improves drainage to reduce inflammation (swelling.) Dr. Chaitow suggests finishing with cold in most instances.
Heat increases blood flow to tight muscles and cold reduces inflammation. But sometimes you don't have to decide. Sometimes you can use both!
Here's how to use contrast therapy:
You can alternate hot packs and cold packs. You might use
You can place your hands, elbows, arms (or even your feet) in the contrast baths. Soak for two or three minutes in each bath. Alternate from pan to pan several times. You can do both arms or feet at the same time in the same or different pans.
Pay attention if you use different pans. You may get some unusual sensations because your body isn't used to processing the two different sensory inputs at the same time.
Lots of times people think of heat as being more soothing and therapeutic. If you apply heat and feel slightly worse, that means that ice/cold will benefit you more. Even though ice can be very uncomfortable, it is often the treatment of choice.
Contrast therapy (also called contrast hydrotherapy), using both ice and heat, can help your muscles feel better. Muscle tissue can relax and soften, it becomes easier to stretch, and pain is lessened.
You can still use ice or heat by themselves but now you have another choice: contrast therapy for muscle pain relief in your hands and arms.