The Healing Powers of Hot and Cold Contrast Therapy
You've iced before; you've used heating elements before. But have you used hot and cold contrast therapy? The idea behind this type of therapy is to spend time in a heat element and then instantly go to a cold element—then rest before repeating the series again. Contrast therapy has been used for thousands of years to cure the sick and heal the wounded. It is all about healing with water and temperatures. Different temperatures give you different results, and by alternating hot and cold waters you get an even more effective result.
Hot and cold contrast therapy is based off the principle that heat expands and cold contracts. When you are in the heat element, such as a Jacuzzi, your blood vessels dilate and nutrient rich blood is able to flow throughout the body. When you jump into the cold element your blood vessels constrict, driving blood to the body's core, bringing nutrients to your organs. Going back and forth from the hot and cold elements, the blood vessels act as a pump, squeezing nutrient rich blood into body and pumping out any waste products.
Using contrast therapy increases the temperature of the body, which helps increase muscle elasticity and reduces muscle tightness and soreness. Since the blood vessels are open and pumping more blood, there is also more oxygen flowing through the body, increasing your heart rate. Some studies have concluded that contrast therapy has the same effect on your heart and cardiovascular system as running a mile but more research is needed in this area to determine the exact effects.
Contrast Therapy Methods
Total immersion and body part specific are two methods that are used in contrast therapy. Total immersion is exposing the entire body to hot and cold. The easiest way to do this is a hot tub, followed by jumping into a cold pool. Body part specific is when you just expose a certain part of the body to the hot and cold elements. An easy way to do this method is to use a heating pad and then an ice pack on the area. Total immersion is the most effective method.
Hot and Cold Temperatures
Total immersion heat temperatures should be less than 140 degrees, while direct heat on a certain body part shouldn't be above 115 degrees. The cold temperatures should range between 40 and 65 degrees. If you’re using an ice pack, place a piece of cloth between the ice pack and your skin to prevent freezer burn.
If starting at these higher temperatures is too much for you, start with warmer temperatures and then as you alternate between the hot and cold elements, increase the hot, while you decrease the cold temperature. Your body will adapt and soon the temperatures will not seem as extreme to you.
Times to Use Contrast Therapy
Contrast therapy is most beneficial in the morning to help the body shift any stagnation that occurred during the night. It’s also very beneficial before exercise because it helps get the body ready for activity by increasing your muscle temperature, increasing your heart rate and your body has been flushed of waste products. Contrast therapy is also great when you have any swollen body part or when you have any muscle injuries or tightness. Contrast therapy rejuvenates the mind and body so use it when you are feeling stressed or when you want to clear your mind.
When Not to Use Contrast Therapy
There are certain times when contrast therapy can be more harmful than good. Pregnant women should not use contrast therapy at any time because of extreme temperature changes. If you have a recent injury within the last 72 hours that is still swollen and bruised, hot therapy is not recommended because it could cause more swelling.
Other health recommendations such as those with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney problems should not use contrast therapy because of the inability to adapt to the rapidly changing temperatures. If you have other serious health concerns, it is best to talk to your doctor before engaging in contrast therapy.
How to Do Contrast Therapy
There is not an exact protocol for contrast therapy and if you are doing total immersion verses body part specific then the length of time that you spend in each element will differ. At the spa I currently work at we recommend you spend 10 minutes in a hot element, 10 to 30 seconds in a cold shower and then rest for five to seven minutes. You then go through the cycle three times. Resting between the cycles allows your body to return to resting levels, improving your body's ability to respond to the temperature changes.
You should always end your contrast therapy with the cold element. Ending with the cold therapy keeps any toxins out of the system and decreases any swelling that you might have had. After any hot and cold contrast treatments, it is important to drink lots of water to stay hydrated.