Thermotherapy: Is Heat Therapy Useful for Pain and Rehab?

Thermotherapy tends to take the backseat to it’s more popular counterpart, cryotherapy.

Most people are going to intrinsically reach for the ice whenever pain/injury arises, however, you may actually benefit more by choosing heat depending on your current situation.

Heat succeeds in most places where ice does not, and while this isn’t a miracle cure, heat therapy can provide just enough relief to take the edge off of common problems like back and neck pain.

Here’s everything you should know about the benefits and purposes of therapeutic heating, and if it’s actually useful for pain and rehab.

1. When You Should Use Thermotherapy

For starters, thermotherapy is not a cure all. You should not be slapping a heating pad on your body for every single instance of pain.

Thermotherapy’s main use should be for “non-inflammatory” body pain. Think things like general stiffness in your back or neck, muscle soreness from overexertion, and general “all over” body pain from any non-acute injury related causes.

You SHOULD NOT be using thermotherapy for instances of acute “inflammatory” pain. Think things like “fresh” injuries or infections (you just rolled your ankle, you tore your bicep, muscle strains, etc.). These types of pains should not be heated and are likely better suited to cryotherapy. If you’re confused whether your pain/injury is considered “fresh” or “inflammatory“, some signs to look for are swelling, redness of the skin, your skin is warm to the touch, or your skin is sensitive to touch. Additionally, if you just injured yourself before reading this article, it’s probably still fresh bro…

2. How Does Thermotherapy Work?

On a very base level, heat is comforting. 

Pain can largely be influenced by our brain/patterns of thinking, and any time we can increase this overall perception of safety and comfort is a good thing. Likewise, anytime we can decrease our perception of danger and fear in regard to a pain situation is also beneficial.

Essentially, a heat source can double as a source of reassurance that you are “safe” which in turn can decrease perceived levels of pain.

Additionally, by heating a site on your body you are increasing blood flow to that area, tissue metabolism, and tissue extensibility. All good things.

Increasing blood flow/tissue metabolism in an area can help facilitate healing by drawing nutrients and oxygen to an injury site. Meanwhile, increased tissue extensibility could provide just enough relief in body stiffness to get you to be physically active (also helpful for recovery/pain relief).

3. Local Vs. Systemic Heating for Thermotherapy

Does it matter how you heat? Not particularly no. 

Local heating refers to specifically heating one particular spot on your body. Meanwhile, systemic heating refers to any situation where you are heating your whole body (the shower, hot tubs, saunas, etc.)

Local heating tends to be the preferred method for pin-point aches, and can also be helpful if you are trying to heat a part of your body when you are already in a hot environment (think you want to do heat therapy but you live in Florida). Likewise, full systemic heating can be useful for…you guessed it…full body soreness such as DOMS. However, neither method is more “right” than the other.

4. Is Thermotherapy Effective?

This question might depend on what your definition of effective is.

Is thermotherapy going to magically cure you of all ailments, and make all of your pain disappear? No. Can thermotherapy provide a surprising amount of symptom relief in certain situations and potentially improve a persons quality of life? Yes.

Much like cryotherapy, thermotherapy can provide an individual a cheap and drugless intervention for pain relief to a variety of problems where ice otherwise wouldn’t cut it. This is not “the cure” to pain but more so a tool you can have in your arsenal of pain relieving interventions.

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.