Posted by chiropractor Dr. Craig Buscomb.
The ice and heat debate is a never ending discussion. Depending on what book you read or who you talk to, you will get different answers as to what is best and how to use them effectively. Here is my take on heat therapy.
Heat therapy can have numerous benefits and has long been associated with comfort and relaxation. However, it can provide both pain relief and healing benefits for injuries. Heat is best used for sub-acute and chronic or long term conditions.
So how does it work?
Heat therapy can help provide relief through several mechanisms:
Heat therapy dilates the blood vessels in the area. This process increases the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and washes away the toxin build up, helping to heal the tissue and reduce pain.
Short term heat application will only penetrate a few mm’s. Deeper tissue reactions are due to local reflexes and require more than 15 minutes of heat.
If mild heat is used it can decrease sensation of sensory nerve endings. This means that applying heat to the area will decrease the transmission of pain signals to the brain and help relieve the discomfort.
Heat application also facilitates stretching the soft tissues around the spine, including muscles, connective tissues and adhesions. As a result of this, there will be a decrease in stiffness as well as pain, with an increase in flexibility and overall feeling of comfort.
How to use heat therapy effectively
My suggestion for using heat therapy is to have a good heat source like a wheat bag, hot pack or a heat lamp. My favorite thing to use is a wheat bag for its ease of use and safety (if you follow the instructions and heat it correctly). If you are using a microwave to heat a wheat bag, make sure you put a cup of water in the microwave to avoid overheating the wheat.
When applying the heat I have found short bursts tend to work more effectively from a physiological perspective. Apply the heat for 20min (to make sure it penetrates deeper tissues) them remove the heat for approximately 40 min before re-applying for a further 20min. These short bursts will help bring two big rushes of fresh oxygenated and nutrient rich blood to the area to help speed up the healing process. You can leave the heat on for longer, but applying it this way will give you the best physiological response.