Heat therapy: when and why?

Get back to basics with heat

Heat therapy is one of the most cost effective (and forgotten about) remedies for muscle and joint aches and pains. It helps soothe the nervous system, and when our nervous system (the brain part) feels safe and comforted, muscular tension and tone are reduced. Without any specific injury, knots, trigger points and myofascial pain are a large contributor to persistent aches that occur in our body. Heat can help relieve this.

But what about if it really hurts? Haven’t the muscles been strained and inflammation occurred? Probably not. Unless you have experienced a traumatic event (car accident), have done something with a lot of exertion (lifting something extremely heavy), or have been impacted with a high degree of force (struck playing football or hockey) then it is unlikely that anything has been damaged. Note that the above examples are just that, examples, and are not exclusive of all soft tissue injury. However, their underlying similarity is that they resulted in a sudden, forceful, and acutely painful experience resulting in tissue damage.

Much of the pain we experience can still be intense and limit our range of motion. The neck and low back are good examples. Tight muscles or irritated joints can produce nagging or stabbing pain but this is more likely due to a defense mechanism (spasm and trigger points) than it is to inflammation. And despite the intensity, the pain and restriction comes more from our nervous system and less from specific tissue damage. Never underestimate the power of our brain to want to protect our spine!

This is where a heating pad, bean bag, hot water bottle or hot bath can be helpful. Heat is generally perceived by the body as soothing and relaxing. It brings blood to the area that helps circulate oxygen and nutrients to spasmed or otherwise unhappy muscles. The best application of heat is a deep moist heat. The moisture helps the heat penetrate just a little bit more into the muscle as opposed to only being superficially felt by the skin (but this helps too because receptors tell the brain you are comfy and cosy!). Specific heating pads called thermaphores supply this more moisturized heat. Also, you can wrap a hot water bottle in a hot, damp cloth. Do not do that for electrical heating pads! Apply the heat for 10- 15 mins. Or immerse yourself in a hot bath. Sometimes baths can be stimulating so not everyone likes to do this before heading to bed.

There are always exceptions to the rule; your own personal experience and health history comes into play here. Heat CAN cause more inflammation if the tissue is swelling and already red. And if you are already overheated, you may not feel comfortable adding more heat to your body. Your discretion and experience are just as valid in these cases, so listen to your body. But if it’s a constant ache, try some heat. If your neck “kinked” overnight, try some heat. Relax, calm yourself down and let the heat and your own nervous system aid in reducing some of the discomfort.

If you have any questions about whether heat is the right option, please email me at erin@erinwhyte-rmt.com. Sometimes things seem pretty basic, but sometimes we just need to make sure we are doing the right thing. I will do my best to guide you in that direction.