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Heat Therapy Guide for Post Injury

by Patty Weasler, RN April 29, 2021 0 Comments

heating pad on woman's back

Heat therapy boasts an easy, inexpensive home treatment option that can relieve all sorts of aches and pains from lower back pain and muscle injuries to joint pain from osteoarthritis. Applying heat with the use of a heating pad or compress to an affected area will improve healing time and lessen pain. In this article, we will teach you the easy and proper ways to use heat therapy, keep scrolling to learn how to reap the rewards!

How Heat Can Help Injuries

When heat is applied to your skin your body goes through some significant physiologic changes. Heat causes the surrounding blood vessels to widen, medically known as vasodilatation. This increases blood flow, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the tissues. Heat also increases the metabolic demand, meaning that the tissues need more nutrients and oxygen to properly function. Heat therapy also improves tissue extensibility, which is the flexibility of your connective tissue and muscles. Through heat therapy, you will be able to find pain relief while improving how your tissue works and heals at a cellular level. 

Best Time to Use Heat

There are some serious benefits to heat but only when you use it in the right scenarios. If you have suffered an injury do not use heat for the first two days afterward. This initial period is called the inflammatory phase, the body creates an inflammatory response to the injury to contain the injured cells and does damage control. If you apply heat during this phase then you will increase swelling and inflammation, which will ultimately make your pain worse.

It’s best to first apply cold therapy after an initial injury using cold packs or even an ice therapy machine.

Click here to learn more about alternating hot and cold therapy.

  • The best time to use heat is after the initial injury phase has passed, which is 3 days after your injury. The inflammatory process has slowed down and heat will now improve the healing of the damaged tissues.

  • Use heat therapy in conjunction with self-massage. Loosen the muscles with heat prior to a massage can allow you to better manipulate and work tight areas.

Tips & Techniques for Self-Massage

Types of Heat Therapy

There are a couple of different types of heat that you can apply heat therapy to your body. Below we’ll exam each type, how to apply, the benefits, and the drawbacks.

Dry Heat

heating pad controller

Dry heat is heat applied to the skin without any moisture. Dry heat tends to be easier to use for confined areas on the body like sprains and muscle cramps. It also doesn’t have the mess of moist heat and heats up quickly. One of the drawbacks to dry heat is that it can dry out your skin.

Ways to Apply Dry Heat:

The most common heat sources for applying dry heat are:

    • Electric heating pad
    • Heated gel pack
    • Sauna

With direct heat treatment using a hot pack, only apply heat to the area for 20 minutes to avoid burns or skin irritation.

Moist heat

Hold Cold Water Bottle

Moist heat uses warm water as the heat source. Many people find that moist heat penetrates deeper into their tissues to provide relief and relaxation. This heat therapy method is a great option if you need to apply it to large areas or even your whole body. If you are an athlete, moist heat after a tough workout is one way to manage the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Ways to Apply Moist Heat:

The easiest ways to apply moist heat include:

    • Hot baths
    • Hot tub
    • Hot water bottle
    • Moist heat wraps

If you are having moderate pain, build up to 30 minutes or 1 hour submerged in a warm bath. The longer treatment will allow the heat to dig deeper into the muscles and tissues.  

Infrared Heat

Infrared heat therapy is a new approach to treating an acute injury or chronic pain. Infrared light is used over certain areas of the body to encourage cellular repair and growth. The infrared light also improves blood flow which can lessen healing times. By using different wavelengths you can penetrate deep into the soft tissue to find relief. Unlike ultraviolet light, infrared light is not harmful to the skin.

Ways to Apply Infrared Heat:

To use infrared heat you will need an infrared lamp or device. These devices can be expensive making it a tough type of heat therapy to use at home. Red light therapy is similar to infrared heat and is offered at some salons, wellness clinics, and doctor’s offices.

Which Heat is Best?

Wondering which type of heat therapy is better for you? It depends on your needs as well as your access to each.

  • For heat therapy that is portable and quick for a small area of your body than dry heat is likely the best choice.
  • Moist heat is better for large areas of muscle soreness.
  • Infrared heat is ideal for those looking to make long-term changes to their soft tissue with heat that needs to be done outside of their home.

Using Heat with Cold Therapy

Woman placing cold wrap in freezer

As great as heat therapy is, we can’t forget about its polar opposite, cold therapy. Cold therapy sometimes called cryotherapy is usually applied with an ice pack, submerging the affected area in an ice bath, or through other means. The cold tightens blood vessels, numbs pain, and reduces swelling. By alternating heat and cold, you gain the benefit of both therapies to treat your injury.

Learn More About Alternating Hot and Cold Therapy

When to Skip the Heat

Heat is one of the standard treatments for muscle spasms, aches, and injuries. But the treatment isn’t perfect and has its limitations. Skip heat if you:

  • Suffer from diabetes or peripheral nerve damage that could alter the way you feel the heat. You may inadvertently burn yourself.
  • Have an open sore or skin irritation
  • Have active swelling or edema.

Recovering with Heat

Heat therapy is a widely popular treatment for muscle and soft tissue injuries. It is an inexpensive and simple therapy used by both athletes and homebodies. Use a heating pad, hot water bottle, or even infrared light to alleviate your aches and pains. As with all new treatments, it’s important to talk to your doctor before you implement this new treatment.


Patty Weasler, RN
Patty Weasler, RN

Patty Weasler is a freelance health writer and nurse. She is certified in critical care nursing and has been practicing for over 10 years. Patty lives in Milwaukee, WI with her husband and three children. She enjoys spending her time with family and educating people about their health.

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