man applying heat to an injured elbow
Close-up Of A Person Applying Ice Gel Pack On An Injured Elbow

When to Use Heat to Treat an Injury

Healing from a sports or activity related injury is always a little frustrating because most people want to jump back up and return to what they were doing when the injury occurred. Whether you were out on your nightly run, lifting a box at work, or practicing at the gym most people would rather return to their regular physical routine instead of taking weeks of light work and healing. Most people eventually start thinking about how to heal faster and a few quick internet searches reveal that heat is, in general, a great treatment option for fast comfortable healing. However, there are also a lot of very specific circumstances where you shouldn’t use heat so it’s important to know the difference between the injuries that can be treated with heat and those that can’t.

Heat is a Powerful Healing Aid

The human body is very affected by temperature. When it gets cold, we literally slow down and tense up. We move more slowly, and our muscles get tight and stiff. In the heat, we get energetic, the blood flows faster, and the muscles relax. When you apply localized heat to an injury, you can speed up the blood flow and, in turn, accelerate the healing process. Heat can also relieve pain caused by tense muscles because it causes the muscles and tendons to relax and soften. This can be used alone but can also be used to relax muscles before a therapeutic massage. Heat is often used to treat chronic pain with a wide variety of causes because relaxing the muscles often lessens the pain and other negative side effects.

Be Cautious About Using Heat

While it would be great if heat were a quick and easy cure-all for aches, pains, and healing injuries there are a surprising number of situations where heat is a bad idea. If used incorrectly, it can make a minor injury much worse by increasing blood flow at the wrong moment in the healing process. This is why heat and ice are often used alternatingly, but the alternation is not at all random. Then there’s the possibility of damaging yourself with the heat source. You may think you’ve got more than enough common sense to avoid this but all the same, never fall asleep with a hot pack and be cautious about placing heat on sensitive skin.

Heat Therapy for a Recent Injury

Heat therapy can be great for helping you quickly recover from a sprain, strain, tear, cramps, and other standard sports and activity related injuries in the mid and late stages. However, let us be clear, never put heat on a fresh wound because it increases blood flow. If you are bleeding, it’s easy to see why increasing blood flow would be a bad idea. Otherwise, heat will just increase the amount of blood that pools around the wound causing painful swelling. You want the swelling to go down and any bleeding to stop so instead, apply ice through a towel or with a cold pack to reduce blood flow, discourage swelling, and slow down any bleeding.

After your injury has stopped any swelling, you can then use heat to increase the blood flow to the healing soft tissue. Heat can decrease the pain and if you have been tensing muscles out of pain or compensation for the injury, heat will help you relax and heal more quickly.

Heat Therapy for Chronic Pain

A large number of painful chronic conditions are similar to and treated by the same methods as activity-based injuries. Arthritis, Tendinitis, Carpal Tunnel, skeletal alignment issues, and all sorts of problems caused by stress and tension can be helped with heat. This is because many chronic pain problems are caused by or cause tense muscles and stiff movements. Heat relaxes the body which also associates heat with comfort. It’s even good for mental stress because of the psychological association with heat and relaxation.

Heat is most easily used to treat localized pain that occurs in one joint, muscle, or a single area of the body. You can treat the pain much in the same way you might an injury with support and hot pads, hot towels, or a hot water bottle.

Regional pain which occurs in a larger overall area of the body like the lower back or the hip from waist to knee is better treated with a more widespread heat than can be provided by a single conventional source. With regional pain, you either need several heated towels or consider taking a hot bath.

If you have full body tension or chronic pain, soaking in heat or sitting in a warm sauna can sometimes be the best way to relieve the pain and relax for a while. Heat distributed over your entire body can work together to relax whole muscle groups and get your blood flowing more smoothly if you have circulation problems.

Heat Therapy for Internal Pain

Sometimes chronic pain isn’t about your voluntary muscles. There are a lot of other muscles inside your body that do their thing without any outside instruction from you and sometimes these muscles get tense, knotted, and stiff as well and may need to be relaxed. Sometimes this can even translate as back or shoulder pain because of sympathetic muscle tensing and you don’t have a lot of sensory nerves among your innards. If you’ve been having trouble finding the solution to chronic shoulder, lower back, stomach, or lower abdomen pain, heat is often the answer. This can relax muscles that you have very little control over as well as increase blood flow and accelerate certain internal chemical processes. To use heat for internal relaxation, apply hot towels or a hot water bottle to your belly and lower abdomen and/or your lower back.

When Not to Use Heat

As we’ve mentioned, the first rule about when to use heat is to never apply it to a fresh injury. Swelling and bleeding need ice and compression. Only use heat if there is no swelling, including swelling from a chronic condition. However, there are also a few other specific instances in which heat is a bad idea. Don’t use heat on a region that has low temperature sensitivity because the skin won’t be able to tell you if the heat is causing a burn. For similar reasons, be careful about recently damaged, sensitive, or raw skin.

Also, don’t treat with heat if you have:

  • Diabetes
  • An infection
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Vascular Diseases
  • Dermatitis

Knowing when and where to use heat for pain and injury treatment is a powerful tool. Whether you’re an athlete, a physically active professional, or someone looking to overcome their chronic condition, the strategic application of heat can help you heal faster, relieve pain, and even sleep more comfortably. The best part is that understanding of how heat helps the body will be useful to you and others you know for the rest of your life. Help teammates heal faster by knowing when to switch to heat or share with others who have your condition what heat methods work best for you. No matter what kind of aches or pains you’re treating, Mueller Sports Medicine is here to help. Contact us if you’d like more information on when to use heat treatments.