Heat therapy works by improving circulation and blood flow to an area due to increased temperature. Increasing the temperature of the afflicted area even slightly can soothe discomfort and increase muscle flexibility. Heat therapy can relax and soothe muscles and heal damaged tissue.
- Dry heat (or “conducted heat therapy”) includes sources like heating pads, dry heating packs, and even saunas. This heat is easy to apply.
- Moist heat (or “convection heat”) includes sources like steamed towels, moist heating packs, or hot baths. Moist heat may be slightly more effective as well as require less application time for the same results.
Professional heat therapy treatments can also be applied. Heat from an ultrasound, for example, can be used to help pain in tendonitis.
When applying heat therapy, you can choose to use local, regional, or whole-body treatment. Local therapy is best for small areas of pain, like one stiff muscle. You could use small heated gel packs or a hot water bottle if you only want to treat an injury locally. Regional treatment is best for more widespread pain or stiffness, and could be achieved with a steamed towel, large heating pad, or heat wraps. Full body treatment would include options like saunas or a hot bath.
People with certain pre-existing conditions should not use heat therapy due to higher risk of burns or complications due to heat application. These conditions include:
- vascular diseases
- deep vein thrombosis
- multiple sclerosis (MS)
If you have either heart disease or hypertension, ask your doctor before using heat therapy. If you are pregnant, check with your doctor before using saunas or hot tubs.
Minor stiffness or tension can often be relieved with only 15 to 20 minutes of heat therapy.
Moderate to severe pain can benefit from longer sessions of heat therapy like warm bath, lasting between 30 minutes and two hours.
Icing an injury is best for sprains, strains, overuse injuries and minor muscle tears. This is to help reduce the swelling caused by these types of injuries.
Ice constricts blood flow to muscles. As the muscle cools, the amount of blood in the muscle diminishes as the constriction process pushes it out. This is great to help reduce bruising, swelling and discomfort.
As the muscle warms and the blood vessels expand, new blood comes rushing in and cleans the debris left behind from the injury and stimulates the healing process. The more times the body is able to do this, the quicker healing should be.
How to ice “Properly”
- Get the ice on quickly. Icing is most effective in the immediate time period following an injury. The effect of icing diminishes significantly after about 48 hours. To reduce swelling and minimize inflammation, try to get the ice applied as soon as possible after the injury.
- Perform an “ice massage.” Apply ice directly to the injury. Move the ice frequently, not allowing it to sit in one spot. Many athletes will perform an ice massage where they use a frozen block of ice and massage into the area of discomfort, to prevent prolonged direct contact of the ice to one specific location.
- Don’t forget to elevate. Keep the injured body part elevated above the heart while icing; this will further help reduce swelling. By moving you quickly through the inflammatory phase of healing, your body can more quickly enter the repair phase of your recovery.
- Watch the clock. Ice for 15-20 minutes, but never longer. You can cause further damage to the tissues, including frostbite, by icing for too long. As mentioned earlier, performing an ice massage can be a safe and effective way to ensure skin and soft tissues are less likely to be damaged.
- Allow time between treatments. Allow area to warm for at least 45 minutes or an hour before beginning the icing routine again. Repeating ice application can be helpful as inflammation and swelling can be prolonged processes. Give your body a chance to recover between applications.
- Repeat as desired. Ice as frequently as you wish so long as the area is warm to touch and has normal sensation before repeating. Again, inflammation can persist for 48 hours or longer after an injury and limiting the degree of swelling and inflammation can help to move your recovery along.
I hope this has cleared some things up about how/when to do each treatment, if in doubt always ice and seek medical advice please comment and leave reviews of how helpful this was and what sort of things you would be interested in knowing for our next blog.