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Everyone knows that heat is good for managing pain, but not everyone knows why it helps. In this post I answer some common questions to help you understand more about heat therapy for pain and when and how you should use it.
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I did quite a bit of research for this post as I really wanted to understand more about the effects of heat on chronic pain. I read a few different articles online and these are all listed at the bottom of this post.
How does heat help pain?
Applying heat to painful joints or muscles encourages circulation and increases the blood flow. This results in delivering more oxygen and nutrients to the area, ultimately helping to heal any damaged tissue.?
Heat is very good at stimulating the sensory receptors in the skin, which decreases the transmission of pain signals to the brain and helps relieve the discomfort.
Heat is also very good at helping muscles relax, which can help reduce stiffness, tension and pain.?
Why should I use heat therapy and not cold therapy?
Heat is often used for chronic pain as it is generally much more effective at treating chronic muscle pain. Cold treatment is generally used to treat an injury or acute pain, as it does the opposite to heat and decreases blood flow and reduces inflammation.
“Individuals with chronic pain or a non-serious injury can try either method and find their own best solution? – https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/29108.php
What are the benefits of using heat therapy?
As well as helping to reduce the pain, heat therapy has several other benefits:?
- It can promote relaxation – when we are relaxed we feel better in ourselves and it improves our wellbeing.?
- Using heat is also quite enjoyable (as long as it?s at the right temperature, which we?ll come on to later).?
- Depending what type of heat you use, it can last for quite some time.
- And obviously it can help keep us warm on a cold day.
Read some of my other posts that talk about heat for my pain
What type of heat source can I use?
I didn’t realise, but there are two types of heat therapy:
Dry heat – ?which is also known as conducted heat therapy, includes things like heated gel packs and saunas.
Moist heat – also known as convection heat, includes any type of wet heat such as a hot bath, hot water bottle, moist heating pack, steam towel.
How can this heat be applied?
The heat can be localised to the area of pain, for example when you have a tight or stiff muscle, you can use a hot water bottle or heated gel pack where it is painful.
Or you can do what is known as regional treatment, applying heat to help a wider area of pain, by using a heat wrap or steamed towel. My chiropractor used to apply a heat wrap to my whole back to help loosen my muscles.
The other option is full body treatment such as when you have a bath or sit in a sauna.
What temperature should the heat be?
There doesn’t seem to be any specific guidance on what temperature the heat should be. This also varies depending on what type of heat source you are using. You should never use extreme heat as this can burn the skin or cause itching and irritation.
Make sure you use the right temperature for the heat pack you are using. For example, don’t over heat a microwavable gel pack; don’t use steaming hot water in a bath; and don’t add boiling water to a hot water bottle.
You need to be comfortable when using the heat, so bare this in mind to make sure the right temperature is right for you.
HOW LONG SHOULD I APPLY THE HEAT FOR?
The answer to this question depends on the type of pain you have and what type of heat you are using. Heat therapy is different to cold therapy, which should only be used for a short period of time. Heat therapy can be used for up to two hours. Some dry heat packs can be used for up to 12 hours, but you must always follow the instructions for whatever type of heat you are using to ensure you don’t use it for longer than you should.
Generally though, it is best to apply heat for 20 – 30 minutes at a time.
When should I use heat therapy?
This again depends on the type of pain you have. I have tight muscles in my neck, so sometimes I use a heat pack or hot water bottle before the pain kicks in, and other times I use it when I can feel the pain. My physio advised using heat on my neck before I did my exercises so that my muscles were as relaxed as possible to get the most benefit.
When shouldn?t I use heat therapy?
This is definitely more important to consider than the above question. From what I’ve read, there are definite scenarios when you should not be using a heat for pain:
- On a new injury (cold therapy is more effective).
- On hot, red, and inflamed skin.
- If you have certain skin conditions.
- On open wounds.
- If the area is numb.
- If you have any sensitivities to heat.
- If you are already overheated, for example after exercise.
- If you have certain medical conditions.
Before you start using heat, it is always best to seek professional advice, especially if you have high or low blood pressure.
Not sure where to start with your own heat therapy? Read my follow-on post Heat packs for pain: helping you find the right one for you