The Strength of Heat

( [email protected] ) Jun 25, 2004 03:46 AM EDT

Last week we discussed the Power of Ice and its ability to prevent and treat aches and pains. This week, let’s focus on heat. Understanding the difference of when and how each should be applied can minimize the likelihood and the duration of many common sport injuries and conditions. Of course, you should not forget that optimal performance comes from a great sport-specific training program and a proper nutrition plan tailored specifically for you.

When and why to use heat

Heat is often associated with relaxation; as such, it is most commonly used to help treat and relax tense or sore muscles, especially in the neck and in the middle and low back regions. The warmth also acts as an analgesic, minimizing pain. Heat increases tissue extensibility which helps reduce joint stiffness and ultimately increases range of motion. Physiologically speaking, the most healing characteristic of heat is its ability to increase blood flow and promote circulation. In doing so, heat helps to eliminate many toxins and chemicals that build up in the tissues, decreasing the accumulation of edema in chronic injuries and conditions.

Types of heat application

Heat therapy is usually divided into two categories—superficial heat or deep heat. Deep heat is directly targeted to the deep tissues of the body. Usually administered through ultrasound or electric current, this is the type of heat therapy you would receive from a therapist. Superficial heat, on the other hand, is applied to the outside of the body. This type of heat therapy is something we can all do at home with zero cost.

The most common forms of superficial heat application are electrical heating pads, hot water bottles and whirlpool baths. In terms of effectiveness, moist heat is better than dry heat as it may penetrate the body’s tissues more deeply.

How hot and how long?

You should use a temperature that is comfortable to you. If you choose to use an electrical heating pad, choose a heat setting that is safe and comfortable; it is also wise to set an alarm clock or use an automatic timer so you don’t fall asleep with it on. Generally speaking, hot water bottles are usually half filled with water that is between 46 and 52 C (115–125 F). When using a water bottle, be sure to place a towel between you and the bottle. Whirlpool baths use water at 35–43 C (95–110 F). For all forms of heat, aim for a 20- to 30-minute application period.

Stay away from heat if:

You should avoid the use of heat if you experience circulation problems or heat intolerance or if you lack sensation in the affected area. This may include diabetics or those with heart, lung or kidney diseases. These individuals, along with pregnant women, should consult their physician before applying heat.

Do not use heat immediately after sustaining an injury and for the first two or three days following. Continue to avoid heat as long as swelling and pain still exist. When you think heat, think chronic or long-term conditions: soreness, joint stiffness or long-term pain. When you think ice, think short-term or immediate conditions. If you do use heat and swelling and pain occur, go back to using ice immediately.