By Dr. Shawn Dill, Doctor of Chiropractic
When we don’t feel well, we often gravitate towards the comfort and relaxation that warmth provides. Seeking out heat not only helps us feel better, it has also been shown to help relieve pain and provide healing benefits.
Whether we find pain relief through heating pads and wraps, hot baths, warm gel packs or heated massage–a feature that can be found in Human Touch® massage chairs or the Perfect Chair® Serenity®–using heat to alleviate pain and discomfort offers plentiful benefits for the body, especially if you suffer from chronic pain.
Immediately after an injury occurs, you should apply ice in order to minimize the swelling and inflammation that results from the leakage of blood from ruptured capillaries. By icing an injury, the constricted blood vessels keep from swelling and pain is minimized. Using heat at such a time can cause additional leakage of blood from the capillaries, thus causing additional swelling and pain.
However, for most chronic pain issues, heat is a much better solution for the body because it dilates the blood vessels in the muscles, which increases the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and throughout the body. This helps carry away waste in the muscles and promotes healing. In addition, heat therapy can help relieve tension in the muscles, which is a common problem in the lower back.
For those who suffer from stiffness or chronic joint pain such as fibromyalgia or gout, ice is often recommended for newly inflamed joints, but icing can cause stiffness in the local tissues, making heat a better solution, long term. Applying heat to stiff or chronically painful areas often works best early in the day in order to relax the muscles around the joints, while ice application at the end of the day can help minimize any inflammation that has occurred as a result of the day’s activities.
Sports injuries and pain that result from exercising can also be curbed through the use of heat. Recurring problem areas can be relaxed prior to exercise or strenuous activity by applying heat. This helps ensure that the muscles are relaxed. If you work out without stretching or when muscles are too tight, it makes them even more prone to repeated injury.
Heat therapy is a non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical form of pain relief that can be applied easily and inexpensively,
often in your own home. But it is important to use it properly. Heat should actually only be “warm,” and it should only be applied for no more than 20 minutes (unless directed otherwise by a healthcare practitioner). Heat therapy should not be painful or burn your skin. Though you may apply heat several times a day depending on your chronic pain condition, you should never sleep on a heating pad or other heating device. In addition, like many forms of non-invasive therapy, heat application often works best when combined with other types of treatment such as physical therapy, exercise and massage.