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Cold or Warm Therapy: What’s Better For Your Feet?

Published: January 29, 2020

Last modified: January 30, 2020

What’s hotter right now? Warm or cold therapy.

Each of the two methods have their places in treating foot pain and conditions, although the two serve different purposes. By cold therapy, we mean applying something cold – an ice pack, for example – to an area. Similarly, using warm therapy means applying heat to an area through a towel or a hot tub.

Generally, cold therapy should be used for acute injuries and foot pain as ice constricts blood vessels and swelling. Heat has the opposite effect. Applying heat to an area increases blood flow and relaxes the muscles and encourages an extended range of motion. As such, muscle soreness or tightness may benefit from warmth, rather than cold therapy.

Cold therapy

Person holding gel ice pack to ankle

Cold therapy works best on acute injuries and intense foot pain. Why? Because cold therapy helps restrict blood flow to the area, thus reducing swelling which can aid in normal mobility and joint motion. Additionally, cold therapy numbs sensory fibres which reduces the immediate pain and offers you relief. Finally, restricting blood flow to the area means reduced blood loss after an acute injury, such as a twisted ankle.

Apply cold therapy by doing one of the following:

As a general rule of thumb, you should never apply heat or cold directly to the skin. Instead, use a towel or an intermediary to protect your skin. For example, freezing a water bottle and using that on your feet is better than applying ice directly to your skin.

Use ice packs for 5-10 minutes, or however long you see fit depending on feel. Other methods, like a cold shower, can be used for more minor pain, and can be shorter.

Let’s use a case example to illustrate how cold therapy can help keep your feet feeling their best. Many people are diagnosed with plantar fasciitis, which is characterized by inflammation of a thick band of tissue that runs across the bottom of your foot and connects your heel bone to your toes. This often causes intense pain, especially early in the morning when muscles are tense. The inflammation may be the result of overuse – as is the case with runners – or because your overweight, or over-stretched the area causing micro-tears in the tissue.

As a form of treatment, you can use a frozen water bottle as a form of cold therapy for plantar fasciitis. Icing the area this way reduces pain because it numbs the area, and helps in recovery because ice reduces swelling. However, icing can be part of a greater treatment plan known as RICE – recovery, icing, compression, and elevation.

Those who suffer from metatarsalgia, which refers to any pain found in the ball of the foot, where the metatarsals of the foot lie, may also benefit from cold therapy for the same reasons. Interestingly, both warm and cold therapy

Warm therapy

Woman with legs in hot tub

Warm therapy is best for chronic injuries characterized by soreness, tension, and dull pain. Why? Heat therapy improves blood circulation, as it expands blood vessels. Heat therapy also relaxes muscle fibres, increasing mobility. That’s why, for example, when you do hot yoga, you may feel more flexible than a regular session.

Additionally, warm therapy encourages the healing of damaged tissue as blood vessels of the muscles to dilate, which increases the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.

So, heat therapy is particularly useful for people suffering from arthritis, muscle stiffness and soreness, and chronic aches and pain.

A variety of methods encompass warm therapy including:

  • Hot tub/bath
  • Hot towel
  • Sauna

Heat therapy has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially among athletes. Author Alex Hutchinson has written extensively about the benefits of both heat and cold therapy for Outside. In one research-backed article, Hutchinson notes that “eight weeks of hot-tubbing produces really profound changes in markers of cardiovascular health like blood pressure and artery stiffness, perhaps due to increased blood flow when you’re hot.”

Warm + cold therapy together

There is also a warm-cold method that has been popularized in recent years, although evidence of its effectiveness is relatively unknown. According to the University of Michigan Medicine Department, alternating between warm and cold therapy creates a kind of pump. “Heat causes blood vessels to get bigger and cold causes them to get smaller,” they write. “Alternating between heat and cold means the blood vessels alternate between bigger and smaller. This change in blood movement could help reduce inflammation and swelling, and that could improve range of motion in the joint.”

To alternate between warm and cold, you can try contrast baths. This is how to do it:

  • Submerge your limb in a bucket of ice-cold water (as cold as can be tolerated) for about two minutes.
  • The limb is then moved into a second bucket filled with lukewarm (not hot) water, around (40°C), for 30 seconds.

Beyond basic, do-it-at-home treatment, if you continue to experience pain in your feet, book an appointment to see a licensed chiropodist. You can book an appointment below or by calling us at 416.769.3338(FEET).

Book an appointment

You do not need a referral to become a patient at our foot clinic. Schedule an appointment by using the Appointment Request form below or contact the clinic at 416-769-FEET(3338).