Heat therapy sounds far more inviting than cold therapy. As one who has yet to suffer the infamous hot flashes, I love to feel warm all over, no matter what time of day or what time of year. Heat has so many benefits, one of which is to treat chronic injuries or injuries that do not have any inflammation or swelling.
If you suffer from sore, stiff, and annoying muscle or joint pain, heat therapy can be your friend. Some athletes actually use heat therapy before exercising in an effort to increase the elasticity of joint connective tissues and to get their blood pumping.
If you are experiencing tight muscles or muscle spasms, heat can do wonders for those. It is important to note, however, that you should not apply heat after a workout. At those times, ice is the better choice for the treatment of a chronic injury. Also, do not apply heat to acute injuries or to any injury that presents with inflammation and/or swelling.
What exactly does heat do when applied to the body? For starters, it increases circulation and raises the temperature of the skin. You can safely apply heat to your injury for up to 20 minutes at a time. Be sure to have enough layers between your skin and the heating source to prevent burns. (You don’t want to know about my run-in last winter with my coveted heat lamp and my bare skin …not a pretty sight ... and that heat was not even directly applied to my skin!)
Warm temperatures have four main effects on the body: pain relief, muscle relaxation, blood vessel alterations, and connective tissue relaxation. Heat causes the blood vessels in the smooth muscles to relax. As such the vessels open and allow for increased blood flow to the affected area. This helps to allow the tissue to get rid of debris and the by-products of tissue injury. Heat therapy also allows for the relaxation through lengthening of the collagen tissues, thereby helping greatly in the stretching process.
Use caution when employing heat therapy, however. When the skin is already sensitive or damaged, it can create further damage. It can encourage increased bleeding in the soft tissue injury.