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How to Heal Through Heat Therapy

Injuries can be unavoidable, especially when “being active” is your motto. When you’re injured, it’s vital to choose the right type of therapies and treatment to ensure your body heals properly and quickly. The abundance of information available can make it difficult to determine the best type of treatment to help you recover as quickly as possible. The following article explores the use of heat therapy, in particular.

Knowing when to apply heat therapy to your injury is critical to success. A common misconception is because heat “feels good”, it is enhancing healing. Just because heat feels good temporarily, does not mean that it is going to assist in healing the injured area. Improper application of heat therapy will assuredly worsen your condition and slow the healing process. To best know what kind of therapy and treatment method is the right fit for you, as well as how to apply the treatment, consult a Doctor of Physical Therapy who will walk you through the recovery process and provide specific instructions.


  • To increase your range of motion in a particular area
  • To relieve stiffness and tension in your tissues and joints
  • To improve the circulation of blood flow to an injured area

Heat therapies are not all equal in application, duration, or effect. You’ll want to choose a specific therapy for your injury to maximize recovery time, while minimizing damage to the other tissues or joints.

  • Dry heat therapy (conductive heat): This type of superficial therapy works by placing the heat source directly on the injured area. Examples of dry heat therapy include the use of gel packs, heating pads, and saunas. A caveat with dry heat therapy is that it dehydrates the skin by pulling moisture out.
  • Moist heat therapy (convective heat): This type of superficial therapy works by immersing the injured area in a fluid, which is then heated. Examples of moist heat therapy include hot air baths, fluidotherapy, and whirlpools.
  • Conversion heat therapy: This type of therapy can be superficial or deep. The difference between the two types of heat therapies is that deep heat therapy treatments target deep tissues, like muscles; whereas superficial heat therapies do not. In conversion heat therapy, a form of energy (i.e. light) is being converted into another form (heat). An example of this type of conversion heat therapy include radiant heat therapy; although, it’s important to note that only photons with long waves penetrate superficially. Shorter photon wavelengths, while more therapeutic, are considered to be a deep heat therapy.
  • Alternative heat therapy: This type of therapy utilizes alternatives methods to provide heat to an injured area. Examples of naturopathic heat therapies include the use of pleoids (peat from bogs in bags), hay bags, and mustard packs.

Each treatment is based on the type of therapy chosen and the type of injury sustained.

  • Local: This treatment is focused on the specific site of the injury, and it covers a relatively small area. Injuries where local treatment is beneficial include osteoarthritis, sprains, strains and knots in your muscle tissues. Smaller heat packs, Ultrasound and Laser treatments are particularly useful in these situations.
  • Regional: If you have soreness and stiffness over a larger part of the body, regional treatments will help to relieve pain and tension in not only the injured area, but the surrounding tissues as well. Examples of therapies used in regional treatments include larger heating pads, heating wraps, diathermy and radiant heat. Types of injuries that respond well to regional treatments include soreness from overexertion, menstrual pain, and restless leg syndrome.
  • Whole Body: This type of treatment is used when the whole body, and not just the injured area, is exposed to the therapy. Examples of therapies used during whole body treatments include saunas, hot baths, and jet whirlpools. If you have experienced whole body pain or rheumatic disorders, whole body treatments prove to be very beneficial.

Duration of treatment is dependent on three major factors:

  1. Type of injury
  2. Length of time since the injury and your current inflammatory response
  3. Method of therapy applied

Because heat encourages increased blood flow to the injured tissue, it can increase inflammation in recent injuries. If your injury is recent (occurring within the past 7 days or less), heat is not the recommended therapy, and ice may be the best option. In the event you have stiffness and tension in your body, it is ideal to choose a regional or whole body treatment and apply the heat source for 15-30 minutes, always letting comfort guide. If you are treating moderate to severe pain, it is more ideal to choose a local or regional treatment and apply the heat source for approximately 30 minutes, depending on your specific type of injury and what your Doctor of Physical Therapy recommends.

It’s imperative to keep in mind that certain heat treatments, such as heating pads, should be monitored closely while in use because if they are left on the body for too long or used improperly, they can cause serious burns. If in doubt, cut the heat out.

More important than choosing which type of heat therapy to use is knowing when not to use heat therapy due to medical reasons. Discussed below is a large sample of situations in which you should avoid using heat therapy before consulting with a Doctor of Physical Therapy. The following is not an exhaustive list, but contains major factors to consider when using heat as a therapy.

  • Hypersensitivity to heat – too painful.
  • Hyposensitivity to heat or if you cannot feel if the heat source is too hot – This could cause severe burns if the heat isn’t modified.
  • Malignant tumors – Heat increases blood flow to an area which is not indicated in this case.
  • Swelling or bruising in the area – Cold therapy treatment may be considered instead.
  • Directly post-surgery or if there is an open wound – Post-surgical sites and open wounds should generally be kept dry.
  • Dermatitis – Heat could aggravate the condition.
  • Diabetes – People with diabetes tend to overheat and become dehydrated quicker than those without, and insulin breaks down rapidly in heat.
  • Vascular disease – Heat causes the arteries to expand, causing increased blood flow to the area.
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – Heat will increase blood flow to the area it is applied to, aggravating the thrombus.
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS) – Heat causes worsening of symptoms (such as blurred vision). These symptoms commonly will reverse when the heat is removed. It does not cause increased demyelation of nerves.

As always, you should consult your Doctor of Physical Therapy if you wonder if you need physical therapy or heat treatment, as well as being upfront about your full medical history to your physical therapist to ensure you are getting the care you need to relieve your pain and tension while keeping you safe.

Contact us to schedule an appointment with a Doctor of Physical Therapy at Wright Physical Therapy. This will be especially beneficial to your recovery. Our highly skilled doctors can help you explore your options of using either superficial or deep heat therapy in conjunction with other complimenting treatments.