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Thermotherapy for Treating Pain

Thermotherapy consists in the application of heat to the body to relieve symptoms of acute or chronic pain. Heat treatment is particularly effective in managing pain related to muscle spasms or tension, but can also help to treat other types of painful conditions. Moist heat has been found to be a more effective pain reliever than dry heat because the moisture allows a deeper penetration of heat.

Many people use simple forms of thermotherapy at home to treat minor conditions, such as a hot pack applied to a stiff neck or back. Thermotherapy is also commonly used in healthcare centers for physical therapy, occupational therapy and manipulation therapy. For instance, a physical therapist may apply therapeutic ultrasound to a limb before exercise, an occupational therapist may dip an arthritic hand in a warm paraffin bath before addressing fine-motor activities and a massage therapist may apply heated rocks to an aching back.

Heat treatment produces several benefits that can help to relieve pain. Heat increases blood flow to the skin. Thermotherapy causes vasodilation, which improves oxygen and nutrient delivery to tissues. Heat also helps to relax muscles near the surface and thus increases their elasticity, reducing stiffness of joints. Research has demonstrated that superficial heat can block internal pain receptors. In addition, heat helps to prepare the skin for the application of various physical agents. Many patients find the application of moist heat to be relaxing and soothing.

Thermotherapy can also be used in combination with other treatments to relieve pain. Sometimes, cold therapy (also known as cryotherapy) is used to decrease inflammation and then heat is applied to promote blood flow to muscles. Thermotherapy often incorporates moisture or water (hydrotherapy). Furthermore, some forms of electrical therapy supply heat to injured tissues as well.

Conditions Treated with Thermotherapy

Thermotherapy can be effectively used to treat many painful conditions, including:

  • Arthritis and its various forms
  • Musculoskeletal types of neck pain
  • Herniated disc and other sources of back pain such as scoliosis or sciatica
  • Muscle spasms
  • Shoulder pain and different other types of joint pain
  • Sprains
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Abdominal and pelvic pain
  • Chest pain
  • Asthma
  • Eye pain
  • Bursitis
  • Tendinitis
  • TMJ disorder
  • Lupus, myofascial pain syndrome and other chronic pain disorders

Potential Risks of Thermotherapy

Heat should not be applied to fresh injuries, because increased blood flow to the treated area may actually worsen swelling. For instance, soaking a sprained ankle in warm water will increase swelling and pain and prolong the injury. Patients should first use cryotherapy to reduce inflammation before switching to thermotherapy. Your doctor can help you decide when to switch from cryotherapy to thermotherapy.

Thermotherapy may not be used to treat conditions related to cancer or tissue that has received radiation treatment. Pregnant women should not use any form of heat therapy (including hot tubs) that exposes their fetus to prolonged heat. In addition, people with poor sensation, for example diabetics, are at increased risk of burns from overuse of heat.

Other potential risks associated with thermotherapy are aggravation of inflammation by excessive or prolonged heat, skin irritation and potential damage to the eyes from heat creams and ointments and a high risk of skin burns associated with the use of microwave or shortwave therapy or paraffin baths.

Moreover, ultrasound thermotherapy may cause gas bubble formation in tissue or superheating of the periosteum over bony surfaces. This therapy may not be used near the spine in patients who have had some types of spinal surgery. It also may not be used over the eye and pregnant women should not be treated with ultrasound thermotherapy near their abdomen. Patients, who cannot perceive heat or pain, may not receive this treatment at all. If you have any concerns consult your healthcare provider before trying thermotherapy.

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