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Heat Treatment for pain relief – yes or no????

The use of heat for pain relief

We are often asked for advice on heat therapy vs. cold therapy for pain relief. In this blog I will be looking at the use of heat and the evidence behind it.

The theory behind using heat is that it increases blood flow and therefore the supply of oxygen and nutrients to a specific area. It is also thought to reduce muscle spasm, improve mobility and reduce pain.

So the big question is, does it work??

When we look at the scientific research, there is little evidence that heat alone provides significant reduction in pain. A systematic review of research in 2006 looked at the efficacy of superficial heat in the treatment of low back pain. It found there was moderate evidence in some trials that heat therapy provided some reduction in pain and disability in people suffering with acute low back pain. However, the relief was only shown to occur for a short time and any reduction in pain levels was relatively small. Further pain reduction was achieved when heat therapy was used in conjunction with gentle exercise.

So, in light of this, you’d probably expect us to advise our clients not to use heat for pain relief. Not quite! A lot of our clients tell us heat is the main thing that actually helps with their pain. This can be both in the short term and the long term. So we would advise clients to give it a go. It works for some, not for others. The most important thing is to apply heat safely e.g. a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel to avoid burning the skin. You should also keep checking your skin for signs of irritation from the heat and stop if you need to. Also avoid using heat in areas of swelling or numbness.

We would also recommend exercise as part of your treatment plan. It plays a key part in the reduction of pain and restoration of function. If you are unsure, just ask and your friendly physio will be more than happy to advise you!