How Contrast Therapy can Decrease Inflammation

man with lower back pain
man with lower back pain

By Wu-Hsun (Tom) Yang, ND, LAc

You have probably heard of contrast hydrotherapy – i.e. the alternating application of hot-and-cold water – as a recommendation by your sports coach, physical therapist, massage practitioner or physician.  It is one of the most popular techniques used for sub-acute musculoskeletal injuries and chronic inflammation. 


Exactly how does contrast hydrotherapy work to reduce inflammation, decrease pain and promote recovery? 


There are four fundamental signs of inflammation: redness, pain, swelling and heat.  These occur because the body releases chemicals to recruit immune cells to the site of injury to clear pathogens, remove debris and initiate repair. 

Applying ice or soaking in cold water lowers the temperature of superficial tissues and causes local blood vessels constrict to reduce swelling, redness and heat.  This cooling effect also slows down nerve signals to these tissues, therefore decreasing pain and spasm. 

Hot application does exactly the opposite: it increases tissue temperature and local blood flow and simultaneously relaxes the tissues.  Increased blood flow delivers oxygen and enhance the body’s ability to clear debris and heal. 

The most common prescription is 3-minute hot application, 30-second cold application, alternating three times and always ending on cold to prevent local congestion.  This balances the local nervous, immune and circulatory systems and may even have systemic effects. 

Please note: If you currently have an acute injury, open wound, asthma, diabetes, neuropathy, paralysis, known blood clots (pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis, etc), venous insufficiency, cold-urticaria and/or Raynaud’s, please consult with your physician first before trying contrast hydrotherapy. 

To learn more about contrast hydrotherapy and see if it can help with your specific health condition, please call Bastyr Center for Natural Health at 206-834-4100 and book an appointment today. 



Wu-Hsun (Tom) Yang, ND, LAc is a naturopathic physician and acupuncturist practicing at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health.  His clinical interests include digestive wellness, sleep issues, men’s health and fertility, adjunctive treatments to anxiety and depression, biofeedback, musculoskeletal pain, acupuncture, western botanical medicine and traditional Chinese medicine.