Heat therapy, or thermotherapy as doctors and physical therapists refer to it, is the application of either wet or dry heat to injured areas. While it can also be used to treat painful conditions like arthritis, athletes typically utilize it as a way to relieve injury pain as well as to help injuries heal quicker. As the body uses its own heat to help injuries heal, the added heat of heat therapy helps to remove joint stiffness, muscle pain and spasms, and chronic pain. The question is, when is it best to use heat therapy and not ice?
Treating Common Injuries
Heat therapy is most commonly used to treat injuries such as:
- Herniated Disk
- Pinched Nerve
- Cartilage Injuries
- Plantar Fasciitis Pain
When heat penetrates the tissue, it raises the overall temperature of the area, aiding in bringing oxygen, nutrients, and proteins to the area through the blood that all help with healing. Heat can also remove stiffness by increasing the extensibility of the collagen tissues in essentially the same way the body does naturally after a warm up.
While heat therapy is best for pain, it should never be used for injuries where there is swelling, bruising, inflammation, and if the area has any open wounds. By adding heat to these areas of fluid buildup, the swelling will not go down or may get worse. For open wounds, the risk of using heat is different. By heating up the area, it promotes blood flow which can cause the wound to re-open and start bleeding again. The common rule is that ice should be used first to relieve the swelling, bruising, or inflammation, then heat should be applied after to deal with any stiffness or pain.
How to Wield Heat
For many athletes, the application of heat does not go much further than hot water or a heating pad. However, there are many different ways apply heat to an injury.
Hot cloths, hot water, and heating pads are all great ways to apply heat and can be found around the house, but for more serious injury-related pain, your doctor or physical therapist may recommend some other applications. Ultrasonic heat, hydrocollator packs, whirlpool baths, and heat therapy wraps can be used for more penetrating coverage as well as to treat unreachable or broad areas, like the back, where some of the more basic heat applications don't cut it.
Wet or Dry Heat?
Heat boils down to two schools - wet heat and dry heat. While there is no right answer as to what type of heat is the best, they both have their benefits for athletes recovering from injuries.
Dry heat, such as those than come from dry saunas or, more commonly, heating pads, draws moisture out of the skin. While most athletes find it more convenient and easier to use, it can also dehydrate the area it is used on.
Alternatively, wet heat is less likely to cause your skin to dehydrate. The major benefit of wet heat is that it can often penetrate the skin more deeply than its dry alternatives, making it better at relieving joint stiffness. As such, many doctors and physical therapists will recommend wet heat over dry.
However, since many athletes can't afford to sit in the hot tub all day, dry heat is best for those on the move because it is better than the pain that comes from no heat at all.
Heat therapy is a powerful tool for dealing with pain, but more importantly, helping athletes heal quicker. Contact us today to learn more about heat therapy, as well as to learn more about what we can do to help you get back in the game.