Heat Therapy

Written by PathologyPrevention
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Applying heat to an inflamed area will dilate the blood vessels, promote blood flow, and help sore and tightened muscles relax.

Improved circulation can help eliminate the buildup of lactic acid waste that occurs after some types of exercise. Heat is also psychologically reassuring, which can enhance its analgesic properties.

Heat therapy is usually more effective than cold at treating chronic muscle pain or sore joints caused by arthritis.

Types of Heat Therapy

Types of heat therapy may include:

  • Applying safe heating devices to the area. Many heat products are available for purchase online, including electrical heating pads, hot water bottles, hot compresses, or heat wraps.
  • Soaking the area in a hot bath, between 92 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 33 and 37.7 degrees Celsius
  • Using heated paraffin wax treatment
  • Medications such as rubs or patches containing capsicum, available for purchase online.

Heat packs can be dry or moist. Dry heat can be applied for up to 8 hours, while moist heat can be applied for 2 hours. Moist heat is believed to act more quickly.

Heat should normally be applied to the area for 20 minutes, up to three times a day, unless otherwise indicated.

Single-use wraps, dry wraps, and patches can sometimes be used continuously for up to 8 hours.

What is Heat Useful For?

Heat is useful for relieving:

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Strains and sprains
  • Tendonitis, or chronic irritation and stiffness in the tendons
  • Warming up stiff muscles or tissue before activity
  • Heat applied to the neck, heat may reduce the spasms that lead to headaches
  • Relieving pain or spasms relating to neck or back injury, including the lower back

In 2006, a team of researchers found that patients with lower back pain who exercised and use Continuous Low-level Heat Wrap Therapy (CLHT) experienced less pain than those who did not use CLHT.

Previous studies had shown that, for some people, CLHT relieved pain more effectively than oral analgesics, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen.

However, the effectiveness of heat treatment may depend on the depth of the tissue affected by the pain or injury.

Some people use heat treatment, often in the form of a hot bath, to stave off Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS.) There is some evidence that this might help, but heat that is applied for only 5 to 20 minutes may be less effective, as it does not have the chance impact at the deeper levels of tissue.

Some researchers have suggested that moist chemical heat packs, which can be used for 2 hours, may be the best way to prevent DOMS through heat treatment.

When Not To Use Heat

Heat is not suitable for all injury types. Any injury that is already hot will not benefit from further warming. These include infections, burns, or fresh injuries.

Heat should not be used if:

  • The skin is hot, red or inflamed
  • The person has dermatitis or an open wound
  • The area is numb
  • The person may be insensitive to heat due to peripheral neuropathy or a similar condition

Ask a doctor first about using heat or cold on a person who has high blood pressure or heart disease, since excessive heat must be avoided. 

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