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The Healing Powers of Hot and Cold Contrast Therapy

Julieann has a BS in Exercise Science and a Masters of Public Health. She loves to run, practice yoga, and teach others about wellness.

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.


Physiological Responses

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.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


goego from Loserland on November 30, 2011:

the best way to describe it is on youtube, type in float tank or sensory deprivation tank, John c. Lilly may be a helpful name, the only way I can describe it is it's a crash course in meditation :)

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 29, 2011:

Interesting theory about how this helps the body. It would take some getting used to, I would think. What about doing this in a shower? Most people use primarily warm water. The cold could be utilized at the end for a few seconds of time?

jbrock2041 (author) from Park City, UT on November 29, 2011:

Thanks goego. I haven't tried a 'float' tank- what is it?

goego from Loserland on November 29, 2011:

Great hub. I have used this hot, cold treatment before and it seems to work very well. Have you ever tried a 'float' tank,(sensory deprivation tank) good stuff

jbrock2041 (author) from Park City, UT on November 28, 2011:

Thanks CyclingFitness. I was only introduced to contrast therapy as a way to rejuvenate within the last year. Before I was the same as you only using as a part of recovery from an injury. But I truly do feel the difference in my day when I start with hot cold contrast.Working in a spa has opened my eyes to more natural elements and treatments.

Liam Hallam from Nottingham UK on November 28, 2011:

Nice hub. I was always taught that you shouldn't use heat as part of your workout recovery until at least 36 hours after commencement of a workout. Most pro athletes and elite athletes use cold therapy straight after a hard workout to reduce levels of inflammation in the muscles and i've personally found it works very well post workout however have only really been introduced to hot and cold therapy as part of recovery from sports injuries

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