The Benefits of Heat Therapy for Injuries

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Feeling sore after your long run? Tweak your back during a strength training session? While it’s always best practice to address any medical concerns with a doctor, rest assured that many of these fitness aches and pains end up being minor issues that can be treated at home. Your primary goal with these injuries is to reduce pain and support healing so that you can return to your regular activities.

Heat therapy is a common at-home treatment. From heating pads to a warm bath, people have been using heat for decades to soothe sore spots. While much of the conversation around heat therapy is based on anecdotal uses, there is some scientific research to support several benefits.

What Is Heat Therapy?

Heat therapy is any method of applying warmth to the body, either in one particular area or over the entire body.

Heat therapy works by increasing the temperature of the afflicted area, improving circulation and blood flow to that area. This can ease stiff or sore muscles.

It can be broken into two categories: dry heat and moist heat.

Dry heat therapy includes:

  • Heating pads
  • Heat wraps
  • Heat lamps

Moist heat therapy includes:

  • Warm bath
  • Sauna
  • Hot tub
  • Warm damp towels

Benefits of Heat Therapy

Applying heat to the body is beneficial in several scenarios and can lead to the following benefits:

  • Soothes muscles: Heat therapy has traditionally been recommended to relax and soothe stiff, sore, or cramping muscles. 
  • May help those with arthritis: Joint inflammation can cause pain and stiffness, and heat may relieve this. Some evidence suggests it may temporarily increase elasticity of connective tissues. However, not all studies have shown a positive benefit to heat therapy in arthritis; it may vary based on the type of heat therapy, the severity and type of arthritis, or the specific joints being treated.
  • Relieves lower back pain: According to a literature review in Postgraduate Medicine, heat therapy has been shown to be effective for short-term reductions in lower back pain.
  • Useful for DOMS: You may have experienced DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness – in the past. It’s that achy feeling that you get about 24 to 48 hours after a tough workout.

Whole-body heat therapy has not been proven effective for preventing delayed onset muscle soreness. In other words, hitting the sauna after a tough workout isn’t likely to prevent those slightly achy legs in a day or two.

However, once you start feeling that soreness, evidence suggests that heat therapy may help support muscle repair and recovery. Researchers believe it’s more effective for delayed onset muscle soreness at that point compared to cold therapy.

Prepare for exercise (in certain situations): While heat therapy is unnecessary for most people before stretching or exercise, it may benefit those with excess scar tissue or those experiencing areas of tightness before a workout. Heat helps increase blood flow to the area and increase tissue elasticity so the muscles are ready to work.

May help with muscular rehabilitation: Research suggests that heat-based interventions may improve muscular health after injuries that lead to temporary immobilization or reduced movement. Heat may reduce the loss of muscle mass and/or improve elements of muscular contraction in these situations.

Should You Use Heat Therapy or Cold Therapy?

If you’re currently dealing with a minor fitness injury, you might be wondering whether to grab the heating pad or the ice pack.

Cold therapy is usually used for an acute injury or trauma, while heat is generally used for ongoing muscle pain and soreness or other chronic issues. 

Cold therapy works the opposite way of heat therapy. Cooling down the area reduces blood flow and inflammation. Applying an ice pack (wrapped in a towel) is helpful when there is trauma, as it will help reduce the swelling and pain.

For example, let’s say you were jogging up and down the stairs in a stadium workout. You trip, and bang your shin into the stair. There are no serious injuries, but your shin starts swelling up due to the trauma of hitting the stair. This is a perfect example when cold therapy (i.e. an ice pack) would be used to help reduce inflammation and swelling.

On the contrary, let’s say you were doing the same workout. There’s no immediate injury, but two days later your quads are feeling tight and achy. That’s a situation where a heating pack might provide some comfort and relief.

Choosing the Right Type of Heat Treatment

The best choice of heat treatment depends on the condition that’s causing discomfort, as well as your personal preferences. 

Moist heat methods are often easier for whole-body treatment. For example, a warm bath or hot sauna will effectively heat the entire body. This might be a welcome comforting treatment several days after a tough fitness competition, when delayed onset muscle soreness kicks in.

Dry heat methods can be easier for isolated muscle treatment. For example, if you’re suffering from an ongoing sore hamstring or if you’re experiencing menstrual cramps, applying a heating pad can be a simple and easy way to achieve pain relief.

Remember, if an area is swollen, inflamed, acutely injured, or has an open wound, though, heat therapy shouldn’t be used at all (with the exception of normal bathing activities of course). 

In addition, use caution with heat therapy if you have any type of neuropathy. People with decreased nerve sensations may not recognize if a heating pad or foot bath is too hot, which can lead to inadvertent burns on the skin.

Be Prepared

It's wise to stock your first aid kit with both heating pads (either reusable pads or one-time-use gel packs) and ice packs so that you are prepared for the right type of temperature treatment for any injuries or pains.

When you're using either of these tools, generally sessions should be limited to 10 to 20 minutes in duration (though there are certain low-level heat heat wrap products on the market that are designed to be used for longer time frames).

A Word From Verywell

If you’re ever in doubt about whether to use cold therapy or heat therapy, or are concerned about the severity of your fitness injury, be sure to touch base with your doctor for their personalized guidance.

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Article Sources

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