Summer can get pretty hot, but thermotherapy (also known as heat therapy) can get even hotter. While sweating even more than usual in the summer heat may not sound very appealing, heat therapy can be a great tool in managing certain pain and offering relaxation. Read on to learn more about heat therapy, its benefits, and which devices you can use to try it out at home.
What is Heat Therapy?
Heat therapy, also known as thermotherapy, is the practice of applying heat to the body for therapeutic benefits. Heat therapy can be as simple as taking a warm bath, but can also be more intensive with practices such as infrared sauna use. Unlike cold therapy, heat can safely be applied for prolonged amounts of time to provide extended relief.
What Heat is For
Heat is primarily for non-inflammatory body pain, relaxation, comfort, and reassurance, and taking the edge off of several kinds of body pain. Thermotherapy helps with mostly duller and persistent pains associated with stiffness, cramping, and/or sensitivity, which can be loosely categorized:
- Acute soreness from over-exertion, or the pain you get after trying a new workout for the first time. Interestingly, not only is heat likely helpful for this kind of pain, it’s almost the only thing that is.
- Stiffness and pain in specific areas related to osteoarthritis, muscle “knots” or trigger points, and most kinds of cramping/spasm (menstrual, neuropathic, restless leg syndrome, for example, or even just stiffness from postural stress). But not, of course, cramps from heat exhaustion.
- “Hurts all over” pain and sensitivity. There are many kinds, but primarily: fibromyalgia, rheumatic diseases, drug side effects, vitamin D deficiency, and sleep deprivation.
What Heat is Not For
Heat will make some conditions much worse. Never apply heat to an infection or fresh injury where the superficial tissue is sensitive to the touch, the skin is hot and red, or if there is swelling. Or any other acute inflammation, like a flare-up of arthritis. That’s what ice is for: soothing inflamed tissue. If there’s no obvious/severe injury or infection, it’s okay to try a heat treatment.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell if pain is due to an injury. This is the puzzle at the centre of many chronic pain problems: the distinction between feeling damaged and being damaged. Fortunately, if the pain is mild enough that you can’t tell if it’s a fresh injury, just try some heat and see what happens. But there are many situations where this kind of ambiguity is a challenge, like lower back pain.
Heat therapy should not be used if the afflicted area is bruised or swollen, and open wounds should be avoided. Those with conditions such as diabetes, vascular disease, multiple sclerosis, dermatitis, heart disease, and deep vein thrombosis are at higher risk of injury when using thermotherapy, so discuss with your doctor before attempting.
Heat Therapy Benefits
One of the most prominent benefits of heat therapy is the treatment of muscle tension. If you have ever suffered from a sore back or a pulled muscle, you know just how effective heat therapy for back pain is and how much relief can come from a hot pad or a soak in the tub. This is because the application of heat helps your muscles stretch by increasing tissue extensibility, causing any stiff or tense muscles to relax.
Heat also triggers the body’s response to heal by increasing blood flow to affected areas. This is helpful in speeding up the recovery time of an acute injury, decreasing the discomfort from migraines and headaches, and simply helping the body relax for general stress relief or help with sleep.
More intensive thermotherapy practices create a sudden increase in the body’s core temperature and trigger the production of heat shock proteins, or HSPs, to protect your body from perceived stress. As this happens, muscles reach proper function while the heat shock proteins begin to guard muscles from potential trauma. This helps your body repair and rebuild any damaged areas.
Heat shock proteins are especially helpful in reducing recovery time and enhancing muscle mass for those who are active. You can activate heat shock proteins by spending some time in an infrared sauna or going all-out at the gym.
Types of Heat Therapy
Direct contact heat therapy, also known as localized heat therapy, is the easiest method to do at home. This method requires you to apply either moist or dry heat directly to the afflicted area to deeply heat the muscles in the area. Heating methods include heating pads, hot baths, and even warming topicals. While there is debate whether dry or moist heat is more effective, clinical studies have not noted a significant difference.
Infrared heat therapy penetrates deeper into the body than direct contact application. Infrared heat is capable of reaching below the surface of the skin through near infrared, to the body’s soft tissue through mid infrared, and finally into fat cells through far infrared wavelengths. Using an infrared sauna is a great way to incorporate infrared heat into your thermotherapy application, as the temperature inside an infrared sauna is adjustable and averages a comfortable 100°F to 130 °F – which allows you to tolerate a longer heat therapy session for more therapeutic benefit.
Systemic heating means raising the entire body temperature with a bath or hot tub, steam bath, or hot shower – basically creating an artificial fever. Infrared heat mentioned above can also be classified as systemic heat, as it heats the body through. This application is often a helpful factor with conditions where emotional stress, knots in your muscles, or a significant complicating factor such as lower back pain is an issue.
Heat therapy can be a great tool for pain management and relaxation as long as it is applied correctly and safely. If you have any questions regarding thermotherapy, reach out to your doctor to ensure heat therapy benefits apply to you and can be done safely for your health.