Running Hot and Cold

So you’ve been over-doing it a bit, staying up late, working for hours on your crochet projects, maybe putting in extra hours at the office computer.  The “one more row” syndrome has you in its grasp.  Suddenly the ache in your hands, shoulders and neck is getting your attention.  Is there anything you can do about it?

How about a hot bath? Or some ice massage? The use of extremes in temperature for therapeutic benefit is almost as old as humankind.  How joyful must have been the initial discovery by our pre-historic ancestors of a natural hot springs pool.

Using heat or cold can kick your circulatory system into high gear. Cold constricts your blood vessels pushing old blood out and reducing inflammation. Heat opens your blood vessels, allowing fresh oxygen-rich blood to come in and feed those sore tissues. Heat also helps tired muscles to relax.

Bring on the Heat

Many massage and physical therapy offices have moist hot packs used to warm the muscles before or during a treatment. Moist heat is more penetrating to the muscles than dry heat. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that same hot pack at home? Unfortunately the cost for such a system and running it is prohibitive for most of us.

There are more affordable options though for those of us seeking heat therapy at home. A nice soak in a hot bath or taking a hot shower can help. If you don’t have time for full immersion or you want to focus the heat on a particularly sore spot, an affordable option is to use your microwave and some towels.

Start with a regular hand towel. Get it completely wet but not sopping wet. Place it in a microwave safe container and heat it on high for 1 minute. Be careful opening the microwave door there will likely be a lot of steaming hot vapor.

Have a large bath towel folded in half or thirds laying on the counter or another flat surface nearby. Using tongs lift the hot towel from the microwave and place on the dry towel. Roll up the dry towel with the hot towel inside. You now have a handy hot pack to put around your neck, shoulders or back.

If the pack feels too hot, wrap more layers of dry towel to your comfort level. Once it starts to cool off you can unwrap layers to access the heat again.

Ice can be Nice

You’ve probably heard of using ice packs on an injury and may have done so in the past. Ice massage is a version of that same treatment, though hopefully used before there is a severe injury.

The simplest version of an ice massage is to just grab an ice cube from your freezer and begin rubbing it on your arm. I find holding on to an ice cube to be slippery and sometimes quite uncomfortable, wrapping the ice with a wash cloth and exposing more of the ice as needed is easier. Or you can use purpose made ice cubes. Small paper cups, like the bathroom variety work great, just peel away the paper at the top of the cup to expose the ice. Or better yet (and more earth friendly) use a popsicle mold, anything that allows you to create a piece of ice with a handle.

Ice massage can be a wet drippy mess, so it’s best to prepare your space before starting. You can just hold your arm over a sink or make a pad of towels on your table and rest your arm there as you massage your forearm and hand with the ice. It’s a bit tricky when you switch to massaging your dominate hand and arm, but with practice you can get the hang of it.

Ice massage can be effective for more than forearms and hands too. If you decide to massage your neck or shoulders you may want to wrap a thick towel around your body to keep cold rivulets from running down your spine. In a hotter climate, and for those who don’t mind the sensation of cold, ice massage can be very beneficial.

Hot and Cold Together

Contrast baths are a way of making both heat and cold work for you and can really give some relief to achy, overworked hands. They can also be a great preventative if used regularly. Be prepared though, they can be an intense experience.

You’ll need two deep water-tight containers. I’ve found that plastic storage containers work well. Your container needs to be deep enough that your entire forearm is submerged to just above the elbow and your hand can be fully opened with the fingers spread out. Fill one container with cold water and ice, the other with hot water just about 104 degrees (F) – don’t make it scalding hot. It is a good idea to have a couple of towels handy and lay an extra one over the top of the hot bath to keep it hot.

You’ll need to start and end with the cold bath. Submerge your arm in the cold bath for three minutes (set your timer), then dry your arm and submerge it in the hot bath for three minutes. Follow the hot bath with another soak in the cold bath. You can repeat the soaks as many times as you wish. I usually do three cold and two hot when using this method.

As always, particularly if you have pre-existing pain issues, make sure you discuss your crafting and self-care activities with your healthcare provider before starting a new regimen.