Go Heat! (Heat Therapy, That Is)
That warm feeling can make you feel good inside — and may ease stiffness, soreness, and chronic pain. Some like it hot. Sometimes, you should too.
Ice can also be nice. Often enough it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
But there’s a time and a place — and an injury or ache — for heat therapy. Done right, it’ll do more than just give you a warm and tingly feeling. Careful, though. Done wrong, or done for the wrong thing, heat can make things worse.
More than skin deep. Or not.
There are actually two kinds of therapeutic heat — surface and deep. The better known and more common kind is superficial – “hot packs, heating lamps, hydrotherapy,” says University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute’s Stephen Henry, D.O., team physician for University of Miami intercollegiate athletics and the Miami Marlins.
“Then there’s a deeper therapy where you can use an ultrasound machine or even use electromagnetic waves.”
Most times, though, warming up from the outside in is all you really need.
Properly applied, a hot pack, a warm, moist towel, or the like helps increase circulation, which helps pump oxygen and nutrients to the injury, which helps with healing.
“What happens is it causes the blood vessels to be opened up,” Dr. Henry says. “That process is called vasodilation. Then it facilitates increased blood flow to that injured muscle and increases the metabolic activity and allows more blood flow to go, for example, into a stiff joint and then, ultimately, it helps with the recovery process.”
That same process also allows the blood carry away lactic acid buildup and, with it, muscle tightness and soreness.
Heat therapy is particularly good for muscle aches and stiffness, and for treating chronic and overall pain.
“A lot of times chronic back pain is related to those tight muscles around the spine. So if we can loosen up those muscles that will help you with the mobility. That’s where you can use heat,” says Dr. Henry. “A warm hydrotherapy bath can help with fibromyalgia because then we’re able to get this warm temperature to all these muscles tand it helps to ease the pain. Again, under the guidance of a specialist.”
Of course, too much heat therapy can be a bad thing. It can burn you. So go with warm, not scalding.
You also don’t want to apply heat around open cuts or swelling. That vasodilation thing will get the blood pumping and only make the inflammation worse. That’s the time for ice.
Some people might also have other conditions that would make adding heat bad for them.
“If someone has sensitive skin or untreated thyroid disorder,” says Dr. Henry. “You have to be careful with how you use heat you know because sometimes their thyroid can be very active and if their body is already at a higher temperature to begin with adding heat can be more dangerous.”
But, for most of us, the right amount of heat is just right to take that ache away.
Carlos Harrison is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News Blog. He is a former national and international television correspondent, as well as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor.