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Heat and cold: natural remedies for bruises, sprains and strains, aches, pains

July 5, 2011

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As someone who spent many midlife years training for and competing in summer triathlons and who enjoys a physically demanding self-reliant rural life, I count heat and cold among my most important first-aid remedies.

Strained muscles, achilles tendinitis, tennis elbow (I got mine from a day of tossing cordwood off a wood-splitting machine), big bruises, bumps on the head. I’ve known 'em all. Advancing age has brought painful arthritis in knees, neck, back, elbows, wrists, thumbs, and fingers.

Nothing eases everyday pains, strains, aches and bruises like cold and/or heat. It’s important to know which conditions respond best to cold, which to heat, and which warrant a visit to the doctor.

Cold therapy
Use cold to treat an acute injury with swelling--sprains, bumps, bruises, tendinitis. Cold numbs the nerves and constricts the blood vessels, reducing swelling and tissue breakdown, and easing pain. (It also works for temporarily reducing under-eye puffiness.)

The time-honored cold pack for a sprain or a fresh, swollen bruise is a bag of frozen corn or peas. The bag conforms to the injured part, treats the injury; then you eat the thawed vegetables for supper.

In winter, I’ve stuffed a plastic bag with snow. I’ve also frozen water in a paper cup, torn back the top of the cup, and massaged the injured part with the ice. Slow, circular massaging movements help prevent frostbite that can occur from continuous application.

You can make your own reuseable cold packs in a jiffy: Just fill a long 100-percent cotton sock with rice, small beans, flax seed, dried corn kernels, or other hard seed or grain produce, leaving enough space to tie a knot. Keep a couple on hand in the freezer.

Endurance athletes sometimes hasten recovery by immersing their entire bodies in an ice bath!

Heat therapy*
Nothing soothes chronic aches and pains of stored muscle tension or arthritis like a heat pack. Gentle heat opens blood vessels to improve blood supply to an area, and helps stretch tight muscles.

A warm, moist compress helps ease dry, irritated, tired eyes at the end of the day. Massage gently downward over the lids to stimulate the production of both tears and the oils that help prevent tear evaporation.

The cotton sock-pack filled with seeds will work equally well as a heat pack. Toss it into the microwave for about two minutes or into the oven until it’s warm to the touch.

If you’re handy with a sewing machine, you can make a cover of any size and shape to fill with seeds. A zippered opening will allow you to remove the seeds and wash the cover.

I have a large seed-filled “cape” that drapes over my shoulders, upper back and chest, with a short collar that comes up around my neck. Ummm! Heavenly heat after a long day hunched over a computer or splitting wood.

If you plan to leave either a cold or a hot pack in place, keep a piece of flannel or a thin towel between you and the pack to protect your skin from injury. Medical professionals recommend leaving either a cold or hot pack in place for 10-15 minutes, then removing it and waiting half an hour before reapplying.

*Don’t use heat (or provide it to someone else) on open/recent wounds or swollen areas. Before treating with heat, consult a health professional if you have a skin condition, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or a vascular disease.

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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