What is Heat Therapy

Do you feel stiff after working out?

Do you wake up in the morning with an ache in your back, neck, or shoulders?

Do you suffer from menstrual cramps?

Do you get painful arthritis flare ups?

If you said yes to any of these questions, or if you suffer from any other form of muscle pain then you may have heard of the healing properties of heat therapy.

Heat therapy is the cheap, easily accessible form of pain relief that helps those suffering from muscle pain, both chronic and acute.

By applying heat to a sore or stiff area, muscles can relax and allow blood to flow more freely to inflicted areas.

Heat therapy can help if you experience any of the following conditions:

  • Cramping
  • Muscle aches
  • Arthritis 
  • Sprains 
  • Strains 
  • Stiffness
  • But how does heat therapy work and what are the best ways to implement them into your pain management regiment?

    woman with heating pad- lavabag

    How Heat Therapy Works

    The basic premise of heat therapy is that by applying heat to a portion of the body, blood vessels widen and expand, allowing blood to flow more freely to parts of the body.

    By increasing the blood flow, nutrients and oxygen can reach the muscles easier and the blood can also take away toxins from tired muscles.

    However, heat does more than just relax and open blood vessels.

    The University College of London did a study in regards to heat and pain relief.

    Not only did they discover how heat has a relaxing sensation on the body, they also discovered how heat can stop pain on a molecular level:

    “If heat over 40 degrees Celsius is applied to the skin near to where internal pain is felt, it switches on heat receptors located at the site of injury. These heat receptors in turn block the effect of chemical messengers that cause pain to be detected by the body.

    The team found that the heat receptor, known as TRPV1, can block P2X3 pain receptors. These pain receptors are activated by ATP, the body's source of energy, when it is released from damaged and dying cells. By blocking the pain receptors, TRPV1 is able to stop the pain being sensed by the body.”(University College of London News)

    That means that by placing something on the skin which is about 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit for those of us who aren’t on the metric system), the pain receptors attached to nerves turn off.

    This is similar to the effect that pain medication has on the body.

    That means that an individual can stop pain using heat without the need of turning to medications.

    However, individuals using heat therapy need to be careful not to burn themselves while applying heat therapy.

    Conditions Treated By Heat Therapy

    As mentioned earlier, heat therapy can treat a number of conditions related to muscles.

    Heat Therapy for Cramping

    Heat therapy is a great non-medicinal way to help relieve cramping, both menstrual and in the legs.

    Menstrual Cramping

    Menstrual cramping occurs when the brain sends hormonal signals to the uterus informing it that it is time to begin shedding the uterine lining.

    Muscles constrict, pain flares up and soon your day is put on hold as you try to deal with the excruciating pain.

    Heat therapy is a great natural way to find fast relief from these forms of cramps.

    When it comes to menstrual cramps, the best heat therapy tool is a good, reliable heating pad.

    By warming up a heating pad to a comfortable temperature and placing it on the individual’s abdomen, the heat will nullify the pain receptors, increase oxygen to the muscles, and help them relax as more blood flows to the uterine and stomach muscles.

    Leg Cramps

    Leg cramps, also referred to as ‘Charley Horses,’ are sharp, unexpected pains that flare up in the calf muscles.

    Since the muscles are constricting, heat therapy can help the muscles relax quicker to allow your leg to stop hurting.

    If Charley Horses are caused by exercising, use an ice pack first to dull the pain, followed shortly thereafter by a heating pad.

    Woman with leg sprain

    Heating Pads for Muscle Aches and Pains

    For general muscle aches and pains, heat therapy is great to help the muscles relax and to stop hurting caused by restricted blood flow.

    Certain activities or lifestyle habits can contribute to this lack of blood flow, including:

    • Overuse
    • Lack of proper nutrition
    • Dehydration
    • Exercise
    • Infections
    • Injuries
    • Body positions

    Heat Therapy and Arthritis

    Arthritis is the umbrella term in describing a condition where an individual's joints hurt, swell, become stiff, and experience a decrease of motion.

    This condition ranges in various people to an occasional flare up to a debilitating chronic condition.

    Forms of arthritis include:

    • Degenerative
    • Inflammatory
    • Infections
    • Metabolic

    Although there is a wide range of contributing factors to arthritis such as wear and tear of the joints, genetic predisposition for certain forms of arthritis, immune dysfunctions, and infections, relief options are available.

    Many people turn to over-the-counter medications to find relief from the pain, but heat therapy is also a useful tool in treating this condition.

    Since arthritis causes stiffness and the constriction of blood vessels around the joints, heat therapy can help relax the muscles to allow blood to flow more freely.

    Heat Therapy for Sprains

    One of the most common sports injuries is a sprained ankle.

    However, other parts of the body can experience sprains, such as knees, wrists, feet, and shoulders.

    Sprains occur when a ligament (the thick, fibrous bands that connect bone to bone) is stretched out too much or torn.

    Normally, sprains are able to heal themselves except in extreme instances where the ligament is completely torn off the bone, at which time surgery is the best option.

    Although sprains can get better on their own, they still hurt.

    When dealing with a sprain, the typical course of action is to ice it immediately after it occurs.

    However, once the swelling goes down, heat therapy is applied to help reduce tenderness in the affected area.

    Heat Therapy for Muscle Strains

    Where sprains affect the ligaments that attach the bones of a joint, muscle strains affect the muscle itself.

    Muscle strains, also referred to as pulled muscles, occur when a muscle is overused, stretched too far, or torn.

    Activities such as exercise, lifting heavy objects, running, or anything that involves repetitive motions involving weight can lead to a strained muscle.

    Treating muscle strains is similar to treating sprains.

    Once the initial injury occurs, ice the affected area, then once the swelling subsides treat the tender area with heat therapy.

    Heat Therapy and Stiffness

    If you wake up with a stiff back, arms, legs, you know that relief can be found in a soothing shower.

    Hot showers, along with other forms of heat therapy tools are a great way to treat stiffness, whether from an injury, intense exercise regime, poor body positions, etc.

    What Causes Stiffness

    Stiffness, also referred to as muscle rigidity and muscle tension, is when a muscle or muscle group is unable to relax normally and remains in a stiff state.

    Like all parts of the body, muscles are controlled by the brain.

    The brain tells your brain when to contract and when to relax.

    However, sometimes the brain can unnecessarily prolong the amount of time it tells a certain muscle to contract.

    The longer a muscle is contracted the more it begins to hurt.

    Brains normally issue their signals from various stimuli it receives throughout the body and the main stimulus that causes it to contract muscles is stress.

    Whenever you feel stressed, have you noticed how certain parts of your body begin to tighten and stiffen?

    When a muscle is contracted the blood vessels become contracted too, causing stiffness to occur in the muscle.

    Heat therapy not only helps to relax the muscle itself, it also can help reduce stress and relax the mind so the brain will allow muscles to relax.

    Woman in a bathtub

    Heat Therapy Tools

    As you can see, heat is a very effective therapy when it comes to finding relief for various types of muscle pain.

    Not only is heat therapy effective, but it is also affordable, easy, and readily available.

    Heat Therapy Tools

  • Heating pads
  • Hot showers or baths
  • Saunas
  • Steamed towels
  • When it comes to heat therapy tools, heating pads reign supreme because:

    • They are portable
    • Can be used in diverse situations
    • Can put localized heat on affected areas
    • Reusable
    • Can be applied over and over again without side effects
    • You don’t have to get wet
    • Easy to store and have on hand
    • Individuals can sleep while using them
    • Can add extra weight to provide extra comfort

    How to Use Heat Therapy

    Although heat therapy is a very user-friendly form of pain relief, certain precautions need to be taken to make sure that it is used safely and effectively.

    1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position.
    2. Remove yourself from a stressful environment. 
    3. Warm the heat therapy tool to a hot, but not burning temperature.
    4. Place the heat therapy tool on the affected area, using a towel or other cloth barrier if the tool is too hot.
    5. Relax and enjoy the relief of the heat therapy experience.

    How Hot Should a Heating Pad Be?

    There is a small temperature window when it comes to the most effective temperature for the healing properties of heating pads and other methods of heat therapy.

    As mentioned earlier, at 104 degrees Fahrenheit, heat can begin deactivating the pain sensors on the nerve endings.

    However, if the temperature of a heating pad is higher than 118 degrees, it can cause burning if left on the skin for an extended period of time.

    That is because burns occur due to the temperature of a substance or object, and the duration of time that the skin is exposed to that temperature.

    Generally speaking, the skin can handle temperatures of up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit without any consequences.

    Once the skin is exposed to something hotter than that for an extended period of time the more likely it will be to burn.

    The higher the temperature, the shorter period of time it takes for the skin to suffer superficial burns.

    That is why it is recommended that heating pads and other forms of heat therapy tools never be heated over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius). 

    Use Heat Therapy for Aches and Pains

    If you suffer from muscle aches and pains of any kind, grab a heating pad or your favorite bubble bath and enjoy the comfort of heat therapy.

    Easy to use and effective, heat therapy is what your tired, sore muscles crave.