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What is Heat Therapy?

By Ken Black
Updated Feb 26, 2024
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Heat therapy is a procedure that uses temperature in order to help alleviate pain and promote a cure to many common aches and pains. It can come in a variety of different methods, including using dry heat therapy, moist heat therapy, and infrared heat therapy. This type of therapy can be used in different situations and is one of the more common home remedies tried.

Many have questions as to when therapy with heat and therapy using cold temperatures should be tried. In many cases, this may depend on the individual and what that individual seems to respond best to. However, there are some general rules of thumb to live by. Those include using heat therapy for chronic pain, not acute pain. Chronic pain is that which is persistent. It may come and go, but it is usually consistently the same when it is present, though it may be present in varying degrees. Acute pain is one-time pain that is often associated with an injury at the approximate time the injury takes place. It may only lasts a matter of hours.

For those who have chronic pain, heat can help in a variety of different ways. First, chronic pain is usually caused by muscles or joints, rather than tendons or bones. Heat therapy helps relax those muscles and joints, thus providing some relief. However, heat should not be used in cases where there is pain immediately after exercising. In this case, pain may be lessened more effectively using ice, simply because the muscles are already warm.

When using heat, there are a variety of methods that can be used. Generally speaking, moist heat is the most effective choice. This type of heat therapy usually provides the greatest penetration across the greatest area. This can be done using a heated gel or even a moist towel soaked with hot water. Most first aid packs for temperature therapy can be used either hot or cold. Another popular option is the heating pad, which provides some relief and is probably the most convenient method used. Heating pads are also very inexpensive, often costing less than $20 US dollars (USD).

In most cases, heat therapy is used generally to control pain and will likely not provide a total cure for the ailment. In some cases though, the reduction of pain will help to provide full mobility to the joints and muscles. Thus, this type of therapy can almost seem like a cure. In some cases, the chronic pain may disappear forever. However, attributing this solely to heat is debatable.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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Discussion Comments
By StarJo — On May 14, 2012

Electric heat therapy pads can feel great on a sore back. My husband does physical labor all day at work, and he often plugs in the pad when he gets home.

He will lie down on the couch and place the large, warm pad across his back. He lets the heat soak in, and he says that it feels so good.

He lifts heavy objects from shelves onto a pallet, so he has a reason to need the heating pad. I've used it before, just to see how it felt, and it really relaxed me. I could have fallen asleep with it on my back, but I knew that wasn't a good idea.

By kylee07drg — On May 13, 2012

My mother uses heat therapy for her arthritis. She has some compression gloves that she heats up before putting onto her hands, and she says that when she slides them on, she feels relief that is nearly instant.

Compression gloves let your hands naturally produce more heat, anyway. They lock in your body heat, so you stay warm. The fact that my mother heats the gloves before putting them on adds extra warmth and extra comfort.

She prefers heat therapy for arthritis over medications, because they all have side effects. The gloves cannot harm her like pills can.

By orangey03 — On May 12, 2012

@cloudel – That is a pretty neat idea. I didn't know you could use rice in a towel like that, so I bought a heat therapy wrap from a store.

It is a long, skinny rectangle. It's about a foot long and four inches wide, and it is filled with something that sounds like grain when it moves around.

I heat this in the microwave like your towel, and I mostly use it on my neck. It will wrap around it nicely, and since it is so long, it has no problem staying in position.

I have been known to use this same wrap on my arm muscles. If I am sore the day after doing a lot of yard work, the heat can really help ease the tension in my arms.

By cloudel — On May 11, 2012

My shoulders benefit from heat therapy. I tend to hold all my stress in them at work, and I tense up those muscles all day without realizing it.

By the time work is over, my shoulder muscles are tight and in pain. I have a towel that I filled with rice, folded over, and sewed shut, and all I have to do is put this in the microwave for about a minute to get some excellent homemade shoulder heat therapy.

The towel wrap is totally flexible, so I can move it around to any position that I need. I generally start by draping it across both shoulders, and if one seems to be hurting more than the other, I will reheat it and leave it on that side a little longer.

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