Heat can reduce muscle spasms, reduce joint stiffness, improve local circulation and make soft tissue more limber. Heat can be used to help loosen tight muscles and joints as a warm up before exercise and rehabilitation. For example, you may put moist hot packs on tight leg muscles before running, or on your shoulder before throwing, or on tight neck or back muscles before physical therapy.
When should I use heat?
Use heat for stiff muscles and joints when you are trying to make them more limber. Do NOT use heat within the first 3 days after an injury (in this case use ice) or while your injury has any swelling because heat increases blood flow and can worsen swelling.
Moist heat is more effective than dry heat because it penetrates more deeply, which increases the effect on muscles, joints, and soft tissue. Use it for 15 to 20 minutes or longer if recommended by your healthcare provider.
Moist heat from towels soaked in hot water or warmed in a microwave are useful, but the towels usually lose their heat within 5 to 10 minutes. Commercial moist heat packs are more convenient and preserve heat longer for more effective treatment. Some commercial heat packs are designed to fit specific parts of your body. Hot tubs are also effective to soak large body parts such as your lower body and whirlpools are useful for smaller parts such as ankles and wrists.
Can there be any harmful effects from heat therapy?
Heat increases the blood flow to an injury and can worsen swelling. Heat packs that are too hot or left in place too long may cause burns so it’s important to place a layer of towels between the heating pad and the skin.
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