Hot or cold? Why acupuncturists love warmth

hot or cold

Hot or cold?

Is hot or cold best while recovering from an injury? Typically, people choose cold. It’s instinctual. Remember when you were a child, and the school nurse gave you an ice pack when you got hurt? Many of us have been conditioned to reach for ice as soon as we have an injury. Later, if an injury is lingering, people start to wonder if hot or cold would be better.


Cold therapies

In addition to using ice to treat injuries, people are using ice for overall wellness. Many health-conscious people turn to cold therapies to promote their health and vitality. Cold therapy is becoming increasingly popular, with options like cold plunges and cryotherapy popping up everywhere.


What does cold do?

Cold contracts. It stops movement. It tells the body to “freeze”. So, if someone has an injury with swelling that hurts, ice will stop or limit the swelling. The cold numbs the injury. The pain lessens. Because the swelling and the pain appears to be better, people think that the ice was beneficial.


What does heat do?

Heat, and warmth in particular, creates gentle movement. It loosens and softens. It promotes circulation. In Chinese medicine, we look for balance. Not too much one way or the other. When we’re looking to help heal cold conditions, we don’t want to go too far in the other direction with extreme heat. Warmth is a gentle medium. A temperature that feels comforting and good. I emphasize this point because often people think that if a little bit of something is good, then more must be better. In this case, warmth is the middle ground that can greatly support healing.


What the experts say

Dr. Gabe Mirkin, the doctor who wrote the Sportsmedicine Book, coined the term RICE. Rice stands for rest, ice, compression, elevation. It was the gold standard for the treatment of athletic injuries. In the past 10 years, Dr. Mirkin has reversed his recommendation in an article called Why Ice Delays Recovery. In this article, he shares that ice may actually delay healing. Ice causes blood vessels to constrict. This prevents the body from bringing healing cells to the injured area.


Anne Cecil-Sterman, an expert in Chinese medicine and one of my favorite teachers, wrote a fascinating blog called Cold Plunge, Cold Shower, Hot Mess. Anne is very straightforward and calls things like she sees them. In this blog, she shares how the body responds to the shock of cold and moves the cold into the joints to protect our organs, often resulting in chronic joint pain and arthritis.


Consider warmth instead of ice

When patients have an injury that is slow to heal, I’ll ask what they have been doing. Frequently, they’ll tell me they have been icing it for weeks or even months. They can’t figure out why they’re not getting better.


I often have new patients call asking for help because they woke up in pain one day, and they don’t know what happened. Usually, their neck or shoulder is stiff and sore. I’ll ask them if they went outside in the cold with wet hair, or if they slept with a window open or a fan that blew cold air on them. Usually, the answer is yes.


In all of these cases I ask if a hot shower or bath helps them feel better. Most times, patients will say yes. I suggest that patients try to avoid cold air blowing directly on the injured area. Maybe even take a break from ice and consider warmth instead. Patients are often pleasantly surprised to find they start feeling better.


Consider a topical liniment like Zheng Gu Shui

Right after an injury, support the body’s natural inflammatory and healing process. Consider using a topical liniment instead of ice. Zheng Gu Shui is a 500-year-old topical Chinese herbal analgesic formula that is also known as “rectify bone liquid” or “royal bone water”. From a Chinese medicine perspective, it disperses blood, fluid, and energetic blockages to facilitate healing. It increases circulation, eases pain, strengthens connective tissues, speeds bone regrowth, and shortens injury recovery time. Learn more in my blog How Zheng Gu Shui can help you.


Use a warm neck wrap

neck wraps

I frequently recommend to patients that they apply gentle warmth at home to facilitate healing. A neck wrap is the perfect size and shape for many parts of the body, and it can be heated in the microwave. I recently found an artist in Wisconsin who creates small batch handmade neck wraps. These wraps are made from the softest flannel and filled with rice and lavender. They smell heavenly, especially when warmed up. Our patients love these neck wraps!


When to see a Doctor

Please note that the information in this blog is to support you when you’re healing from an injury and considering hot and cold therapies. It is not a substitute for medical advice. It is important to see a doctor to have any injury evaluated as soon as possible after the injury occurs and rule out any serious conditions.


Want to talk about how acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help you? I’d love to hear from you. Reach out and email me through our website or call or text 910-622-4269.


About the Author

Ericca Burke is the owner of HAVEN Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine where she provides acupuncture and Chinese medicine treatments in Wilmington, NC. Click this link to read more about Ericca.