Heat has long been associated with comfort and relaxation. Heat therapy goes a step further and can
provide both pain relief and healing benefits. In addition heat therapy for pain is both inexpensive and easy
to do. It is as simple as having a hot bath or using a heat wrap at work.
How Heat Therapy Works
Many episodes of muscle pain result from strains and over-exertions, creating tension in the muscles and
soft tissues around the affected area. As a result this restricts proper circulation and sends pain signals to
Muscle spasms can create sensations that may range from mild discomfort to excruciating pain. Heat
therapy can help relieve pain from the muscle spasm and related tightness in the affected area.
Heat therapy application can help provide pain relief through several mechanisms
? Heat dilates the blood vessels of the muscles. This process increases the flow of oxygen and
nutrients to the muscles, helping to heal the damaged tissue.
? Heat stimulates the sensory receptors in the skin, which means applying heat will decrease
transmissions of pain signals to the brain and partially relieve discomfort.
? Heat application facilitates stretching of soft tissues around the affected area, including
muscles, connective tissue and adhesions. Consequently there will be a decrease in stiffness as
well as injury, with an increase in flexibility and the overall feeling of comfort. Flexibility is
extremely important for a healthy body.
Types of Heat Therapy
A specific type of heat therapy may feel better for one person than for another. It may require some
experimentation to work out which one works best for you.
Heat therapy falls into two main categories
? Moist heat, such as a hot bath, spa bath, steam room, heat rubs/creams or steamed towels.
? Dry heat, such as heat wraps, electric heating pad, infra-red heat lamp, heat wheat bag or a hot
How to Apply Heat Therapy
The most effective heat therapy products are the ones that can maintain their heat at the proper
temperature. “Warm” is the proper temperature. People should not have their heat source be hot to the
point of burning the skin. The desired effect is for the heat to penetrate down into the muscles. Simply
increasing the temperature of the skin will do little to decrease discomfort.
In many instances, the longer the heat is applied, the better. The duration that one needs to apply heat,
though, is based on type of and/or magnitude of the injury.
For minor injuries or muscle tension short amounts of heat therapy may be sufficient (15 to 20 minutes).
Sources of heat for short duration are a hot bath, steam room, heat wheat bag or a hot water bottle. A
steam room has the advantage of being able to easily maintain a consistent temperature as opposed to a
bath. Heat wheat bags have the advantage of not dropping below body temperature, unlike a hot water
For more intense injuries, longer sessions of heat may be more beneficial (30 minutes to 2 hours, or more).
Sources of heat for mid duration are infra-red heat lamps, electric heating pads or heat rubs/creams.
Sources of heat for long duration are heat patches or wraps. Heat patches and wraps can maintain a
constant warm heat for up to 12 hours.
Caution: Some heat therapy products require insulation between the heat source and the skin to avoid
overheating or burning the skin.
For many people heat therapy works best when combined with other treatment modalities, such as
physical therapy and exercise. Heat therapy is appealing to many people because it is a non-invasive and
non-pharmaceutical form of pain relief.
When Not to Use Heat Therapy
People should consult their doctor if they have heart disease or hypertension.
Heat application is not suitable in the following cases:
? Deep vein thrombosis
? Peripheral vascular disease
? Open wound
? Severe cognitive impairment
? If swelling or bruising is present. In general if the injured area is swollen or bruised it is better to
apply ice or a cold pack to reduce the swelling.
By Simon Ayling
Chevron Island Physio