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Heat Therapy -Procedures, Side effects, Recovery time, Costs and alternatives

Last Updated: Feb 20, 2024

What is the treatment?

For the management of chronic pain, heat therapy can be a great treatment tool for a patient. ‎Heat therapy is also referred to as thermotherapy. In this therapy heat either through a direct or ‎indirect application is used for providing relief in health and pain. The therapeutic treatment ‎through heat alleviates the stiffness of the joints and provides muscle relaxation which further ‎leads to ease in pain. When the heat is applied to the sore and painful joints and muscles the ‎circulation and blood flow of the affected area gets improves drastically. After heat therapy, a ‎patient might feel surging of the oxygenated and fresh blood which leads to pain getting ‎diminished eventually. Therapeutic treatment through heat dilutes the accumulation of lactic acid ‎waste which is also one of the factors leading to the development of chronic pain. Heat can be ‎applied to the affected area of the patient in two distinct ways ‎

  • Moist heat: in this type, the sources containing heat are moist heating packs, hot baths, ‎and steamed towels. Application of moist heat for the treatment is very effective as it ‎takes relatively lesser time in providing relief in comparison to dry heat therapy.‎
  • Dry heat: therapeutic treatment through dry heat is inclusive of sources like heating pads, ‎infrared lamps, sauna, and dry heating packs.‎ Heat therapy can be applied to either specific affected region or entire body depending upon the ‎need of the treatment. Treatment through the heat for the entire body includes saunas or hot ‎water baths. This type of heat therapy is mostly required for athletes after the completion of their ‎sports performance. Heat therapy has some benefits associated with the use which are given ‎below
  • Reduces the stiffness of the body: a body of a patient might get stiff due to several ‎reasons one of them is sleeping in an incorrect position. In such cases, heat therapy ‎provides all the necessary relief.‎
  • Stress and tension: the stress and tension in the muscles of the patient can get relieved ‎through heat therapy.‎
  • Soreness: a body of a person may get sore from a simple exercise routine in such a case ‎therapeutic effects of the heat provide relaxation and relief from the pain.‎

How is the treatment done?

The treatment through heat therapy can be done in the following ways:‎

Hot water bath or sauna or steam bath: using hot water baths and sauna belongs to the category ‎of moist heat therapy. This type of heat therapy performs its function by relaxing the tension in ‎the muscles thereby relieving the patient from the pain.‎

Hot water bottle: in this type of heat therapy the patient makes use of the hot water bottle. The ‎bottle is filled with hot water and then the bottle is placed in the affected region for providing ‎the necessary relief. It is one of the most commonly used heat therapy treatment around the ‎world. This therapy is given for a period of nearly 20 to 30 minutes for alleviating the pain.‎

Electrical heating pad: this option of heat therapy makes use of electricity. The electric heating ‎pad is connected to the electrical outlet which generates heat in the pad. The pad maintains a ‎steady level of heat. Depending upon the need of the patient the level of heat can be adjusted.‎

Heated gel packs: this equipment for providing heat therapy is somewhat similar to the hot water ‎bottle but instead of water these are packs comprising of gel. This is placed in the microwave and ‎for heating. When the pack gets adequately heated then it is placed in the affected region for ‎relief. This pack remains warm for a period of 30 minutes and is easily available in the majority of ‎the pharmacies.‎

Heat wraps: these are used for providing a low level of heat therapy for several hours. These are ‎the most convenient of all the equipment that provides heat for the treatment as it can be worn ‎beneath the clothing. It is generally used for heat therapy treatment in the waist and lower back ‎pain.‎

Infrared radiation: heating the affected parts of the body through infrared radiation has proven ‎to be very beneficial for the patient. Heat therapy treatment using infrared radiation is ‎advantageous in comparison to other direct contact heat therapy treatments since the radiation ‎directly heats the neuron terminals and blood capillaries which are causing pain in the body of the ‎patient. Infrared radiation heat therapy is also very advantageous as infrared radiations get ‎readily absorbed in the body. There are three types of infrared heat therapy based on the ‎penetration depth required for alleviating the pain. The three types of infrared radiation are IR-A ‎‎(penetrates some millimeters), IR-B (penetrates through the dermis), and IR-C (penetrates ‎through to the epidermis). The infrared lamps mainly used for heat therapy are IR-A.‎

Who is eligible for the treatment? (When is the treatment done?)

The eligibility of the patient for treatment through heat therapy is confirmed if he/she is ‎exhibiting the following conditions

  • A patent is experiencing pain in the muscles and joint is eligible for treatment.‎
  • A patient exhibiting the symptoms of fibromyalgia is eligible for the treatment.‎
  • A patient suffering from muscle spasms in different parts of the body is eligible for ‎treatment.‎
  • A patient suffering from the condition is rheumatoid arthritis is considered eligible for the ‎treatment with heat therapy.‎

Who is not eligible for the treatment?

It is the duty of the doctor to decide whether a specific patient is eligible for the treatment ‎through heat therapy or not. A patient suffering from pain due to any external injury is not ‎eligible for treatment using heat therapy. If the patient is suffering from the pain due to swelling ‎and bruises then he/she is not eligible for treatment using heat therapy. In such a scenario a cold ‎therapy would suit the patient much better. A doctor also takes into consideration the medical ‎history of the patient. A doctor does not recommend treatment through heat therapy if the ‎patient is suffering from any of the following pre-existing medical condition

  • Dermatitis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Vascular diseases
  • Diabetes.‎
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Are there any side effect?

A patient undergoing any minor or major treatment has some minor or major side effect ‎associated with it. In the majority of the cases, the side effects vary from individual to ‎individual. Some people undergoing treatment may experience a minor side effect while others ‎undergoing the same treatment might experience a major side effect. The minor side effect ‎experienced by the patient vanishes after a small period of time but in case a serious side effect is ‎encountered then the doctor must be informed as soon as possible. Treatment of pain through ‎heat therapy also has its share of side effects like skin discoloration, and the formation of blisters ‎on the skin. The side effects arise in heat therapy when the patient makes use of hot temperatures ‎in place of warm temperatures.‎In case any of these side effects persists or there any other health issues arising during or after treatment, kindly consult the doctor immediately.

What are the post-treatment guidelines?

The post-treatment guidelines are a set of activities which are either required to be followed so ‎that complete recovery of the patient can take place after the treatment gets finished. These post-‎treatment guidelines are not only effective in recovery but they also prevent the medical ‎condition from reoccurring in the future. Some post-treatment guidelines which must be followed ‎by the patient after the treatment are

  • The heat must only be used for a period of 15 to 20 minutes or advised by the therapist.‎
  • The affected area which gets heated must be covered with a cloth for a period of 5 ‎minutes.‎
  • The heat therapy must not be abruptly ended and the patient must continue with the ‎therapy as advised by the doctor.‎
  • After heat therapy, the water must not get splashed on the area which has received heat ‎therapy.‎
  • In case any discomfort is experienced then a doctor must be informed accordingly.‎

How long doesit take to recover?

The recovery time for the patient varies from patient to patient based on his or her health condition. The recovery of the patient from chronic pain after heat therapy usually takes 20 to 30 minutes ‎based on the condition for which the therapy is being given. In some cases, it might take nearly ‎an hour before the relief starts to set in.‎

What is the treatment price in India?

The cost of treating the condition of chronic pain using heath therapy is very cheap in India. ‎Equipment which helps in imparting heat therapy is available at economical prices. The hot water ‎bottle in India costs around 300 rupees. The average price of heat wraps in India ranges from 200 ‎to 250 rupees. The cost of a heated gel pack in India is approximately 600 rupees. The electrical ‎heating pad in India costs around 550 rupees. For the heat therapy through infrared radiation, the ‎cost in India ranges from 300 to 600 rupees per session depending upon the location where the ‎infrared radiation heat therapy is undertaken. ‎

Are the results from the treatment permanent?

The results of the treatment of heat therapy are not permanent rather they are immediate. This ‎therapy only provides instant relief and a patient might require the treatment through this therapy ‎again in the future when a painful condition arises.‎

What are the alternatives to the treatment?

Apart from the heat therapy treatment for the management of pain a patient may opt for ‎alternative treatment techniques like physiotherapy and manual therapy as they might be able to ‎provide prolonged relief in the condition. A patient may also opt for non-steroidal anti-‎inflammatory drugs for alleviating the pain.‎

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Written ByDr. E. Logesh MSPT (Master of Physical Therapy),BPTh/BPTPhysiotherapy
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