No one likes being cold, so heat therapy sounds good to most people. Now you might ask, how do I know if I should use cold rather than heat? If you’re wondering the same, you are not alone. We get asked that exact question on a daily basis. Let us explain the spectrum of thermal therapy and the use of heat in tissue healing.
Cold and heat therapy do have some benefits in common, but most of the time have opposite effects. Both can relieve pain and muscle spasm, but that’s where the resemblance stops. Hot packs enhance blood flow and metabolism, whereas an ice pack causes both to lower. Cold therapy has a positive effect on swelling, but heat makes swelling worse.
Hot and cold therapy also have similar advantages, like affordability, easy to find, and easy to use. The trick is knowing which one to use but, to answer that question, you need to know which effect you want. Our physiotherapists can help you determine whether your problem needs heat therapy or not and, more importantly, we can teach you how to use it safely.
- Heat must never be applied when: Its within 3 days of an injury or if there’s swelling, bruising or bleeding.
What exactly is heat therapy?
Heat therapy is exactly what the name sounds like – applying heat to get a therapeutic effect. When a hot pack of other heating modality is applied to your skin, the conduction of thermal energy causes a physiological response in the area. This response includes increased blood flow, leading to redness of your skin. The increased blood flow ensures that more nutrients and oxygen are delivered to the tissues. As a treatment modality, this helps with relaxation of the tissue and can also encourage healing. This superficial heat only penetrates 1-3cm, so heat therapy is less useful for deep pain like hip osteoarthritis. However, it can help to relieve the associated muscle pain and spasm, which helps you to move better and eases a spasm surrounding an injured joint.
Why we use heat therapy:
Heat therapy isn’t a very effective tool on its own, but can be a useful part of treatment to make other techniques and modalities more effective. For instance, heat helps to relieve muscle tension, helping us to get rid of muscle guarding that’s protecting an injured ligament, tendon and especially joints. This prepares the muscles for soft tissue, joint mobilization or nerve mobilization techniques.
Hot packs also helps with pain relief. With an increase in blood flow to the area waste products and pain stimulating chemicals can be transported away from the site of injury.
Heat therapy works by overloading the thermal receptors to bombard your brain with a more serious warning – heat. The pain impulses is like a car speeding towards your brain, and the heat therapy is like setting up a tollgate that slows down the speed of traffic. No, it won’t numb the pain, but definitely eases it for a short while.