What is Contrast Therapy and its benefits

Contrast therapy also known as immersion therapy or hot/cold immersion. The treatment involves exposing the body to a contrast of temperatures, hot then cold and is typically seen with ice baths and spas or hot and cold showers.

It works by exerting a physiological effect on the body’s pain gate mechanism. This temporarily alters the pain signals traveling to and from your brain, which can bring a large amount of relief for many people dealing with chronic pain. Both nervous and musculoskeletal system pain can be cured by systematically using contrast baths or saunas.

Contrast therapy is also great for flushing out unwanted stagnant waste in the body by creating a “pumping” mechanism in the body. It can help flush lymph fluid efficiently throughout the body, thus reducing inflammation and the likelihood of getting ill. The pumping mechanism also helps boost the amount of nutrient-rich blood circulating around the body and can help you feel invigorated and alert. Some of the benefits of contrast therapy include:

  • Improved Circulation
  • Decreased Swelling
  • Reduced Inflammation
  • Improvement in Muscle Strains
  • Increased Range of Motion
  • Reduced Muscle Soreness
  • Increased Energy & Alertness
  • Elevated Mood

How To Do It?

1. Using Ice

  • Use crushed or whole ice, or an ice/rubbing alcohol solution.  Place it in a plastic bag, do not use a gel pack.  If you don’t want the bag to leak, seal all the edges of the bag with duct tape.  An ice/rubbing alcohol solution never freezes hard and also freezes colder than ice, ideal for numbing an area quickly.  Mix one part rubbing alcohol to three parts water or ice and place in the freezer.
  • When icing an area, place one layer of thin cloth between the ice bag and your skin.  You don’t want anything as thick as a bath towel, as the cold won’t penetrate your skin quickly.  You also don’t want to place the ice directly on your skin, as that can result in an iceburn (similar to windburn or sunburn).  One t-shirt layer between the ice and your skin is ideal.
  • Again, the intention of icing an area is to numb the area.  There are 4 stages to getting numb: the area gets cold, then it burns, then it aches, then it goes numb. The process can be unpleasant, so let’s get it done as quickly as possible. Never ice an area for longer than 20 minutes.  If it’s not numb by then, you’re doing it wrong.

2. Using Heat

  • There are fewer tips with heat.  And by fewer, I mean one: don’t put anything on yourself hot enough to burn your skin.  Temperature varies by person; some people have “asbestos” skin that never burns, others are sensitive to heat.  If you don’t like getting hot, make sure the heat pack is small enough that it just barely covers the injured area.

3. Steps

  1. Ice the area until the area is numb.  Keep track of how long it takes for the area to go numb- no longer than 20 minutes!  Usually around 10 minutes.
  1. Use mild to moderate heat to bring blood and nutrients back into the area.  Heat the area for twice as long as you iced the area; usually around 20 minutes.
  1. Ice the area again.  Usually around 10 minutes.
  1. Repeat as desired or needed.  Once per day is generally advised, but always refer to your doctor or physical therapist’s advice on frequency.

The use of contrast baths in physical therapy is that the rapid change from warm to cold helps to quickly open up and close the tiny capillaries (blood vessels) in your body. Warmth causes these small arteries to open, which cold causes them to close.

This rapid opening and closing of blood vessels near the site of your injury creates a pumping action that’s thought to help decrease swelling and inflammation around injuries. Decreasing the swelling and inflammation helps alleviate pain and improve mobility.


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