Heat therapy is an age-old treatment that has been used to help relieve pain in the muscles and joints. Whether a sauna, a warm bath, or a heated compression wrap, research shows that heat therapy has numerous physical and cognitive health benefits.
Heat therapy improves blood flow, enhancing the circulation of oxygen and other essential nutrients, helping relieve pain and quicken recovery. Not only that, but heat therapy is safe and provides a cost-effective way to relieve pain without resorting to prescription medications.
In this article, we look at the powerful physical and cognitive health benefits associated with heat therapy and take a deep dive into the science behind it. Let’s get started.
How does heat therapy relieve pain?
When heat is applied to a painful area of the body, it increases blood flow and circulation, helping to deliver much-needed oxygen and essential nutrients to the affected area. The most significant benefit here is that the heat helps to relieve pain, and the added delivery of oxygen, blood, and nutrients helps to speed up recovery.
The presence of warmth on the skin also has an analgesic effect which tricks your mind into perceiving less pain. Not only that, but warmth on the skin feels good and provides a calming feeling that further helps to reduce pain.
According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, a massive 80% of the general pollution will experience lower back pain. The same study showed that those who used heat therapy instead of cold therapy reported significantly less pain throughout the study.
When should you use heat therapy?
Yes, heat therapy is an excellent way to help reduce pain and provide relief and comfort, but there are specific circumstances when heat therapy should and shouldn’t be used. First, let’s look at some common injuries where heat therapy can be used.
Lingering strains and sprains
Restless Legs Syndrome
Stiff muscles and joints (beneficial before exercise)
Many patients with back pain report the soothing effect of heat on their perception of pain. In one study, participants with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Arthritis, and Fibromyalgia reported 40% less pain when performing warm water aqua aerobics twice weekly.
When to avoid heat therapy
As mentioned, there are specific injuries and situations in which heat therapy should be avoided. For example, you never treat swelling or acute inflammation with heat therapy as it causes the blood vessels to open, further increasing swelling; In this case, you would apply ice to the swollen area.
You also never apply heat to a new injury, particularly a soft tissue injury, as the muscle is typically inflamed for a couple of days. If your injury is still painful to the touch, slightly swollen, or hot and red, continue using ice therapy.
Factors and conditions that are not comparable with heat therapy:
Strains and sprains
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
One grey area for heat therapy is when it comes to diagnosing a muscle strain and a muscle knot. A muscle strain means you have torn and damaged the muscle fibres meaning your best option is to use ice therapy to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and make a quick recovery.
On the other hand, heat therapy works wonders in muscle knots as adding heat improves blood flow and circulation and helps to loosen the muscle. If it’s only a minor strain, try using both hot and cold therapy to reduce the pain. As always, if the pain persists, see your doctor.
Heat therapy post-workout?
One of the most effective ways to beat post-workout muscle soreness is to try heat therapy. For a long time, heat therapy got a bad wrap when it came to treating muscle soreness after exercise with ice therapy all the rage.
However, a few studies have shown that heat therapy can help to mitigate the effects of (DOMS) or delayed-onset muscle sorenes. DOMS is the uncomfortable pain you feel after exercise that can last 24-48 hours.
One study examined 14 track and field athletes who used warm underwater jet massage as therapy immediately after workouts. The study found that athletic performance was significantly improved. Researchers believe warm water helps release muscle proteins that play a crucial role in recovery.
Another study in 2006 showed that patients who used a heating wrap reported reductions in pain by as much as 47%. The study also found that the heat wrap was 137% more effective at relieving pain than the ice pack.
Three tips for using heat therapy
Let’s take a look at three simple yet practical and effective ways in which you can incorporate heat therapy into your daily life.
1Take a warm bath or hot shower
Get your day off to a great start by taking a nice warm shower. The heat from the water is soothing and helps to loosen your muscles and joints and increase your range of motion (ROM), getting you ready for the day ahead.
A warm shower before exercise is another excellent time as it helps to loosen stiff muscles and joints, meaning you are much less likely to injure yourself. According to the Arthritis Foundation, your bath should be between 90° and 100° F (32c and 37c), but if you like it a bit hotter like I do, that’s fine too.
2Take a sauna
A 20-year study out of Finland tracked 2,300 middle-aged men to look at the effects of 14 minutes of daily sauna use on health. Here’s what they found.
49% of the men who went to the sauna once a week had died compared to only 39% and 31%, respectively, who went twice and three times weekly. The researchers also found that frequent sauna use was associated with a lower percentage of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and stroke.
Benefits of frequent sauna use:
Reduced stress and anxiety
3Take a dip in a warm pool
A warm pool is another great place to take advantage of heat therapy. The water’s warmth and resistance are excellent for increasing muscle strength, flexibility, and range of motion while doing it in a low-impact manner. If you don’t have access to a warm pool, run a warm bath, play some relaxing music, and soak all your stress away.
Sum it up
Heat therapy is an excellent way to relieve pain, especially in areas of your body where pain lingers, such as your lower back and knees. Regular sauna use is one way to reap all the physical and cognitive benefits associated with heat therapy.
If you’re applying a heating pack or electric heating pads, limit their use to 20 minutes. Going any longer than this can increase inflammation and potentially burn the skin. Use ice therapy to relieve pain and reduce swelling after an injury.
If you’ve tried hot and cold therapy but your pain remains, please consult your local healthcare provider or family GP.
Want to learn more?
Dr. Rhonda Patrick walks us through the physical and cognitive benefits of using a sauna, referred to as hyperthermic conditioning. This type of heat therapy improves athletic performance and increases blood flow and plasma to the heart and muscles. Dr. Patrick also discusses the amazing benefits regular sauna use has on our cognitive function.
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