What Are The Benefits Of Heat Therapy On Sports Injuries?

Our sports therapist gives us his expert advice on the use of heat therapy to treat injuries.

All our injury and recovery resources are rigorously vetted by our expert team and adhere to our Injury Guidelines.

Trying to navigate yourself haphazardly down the stairs the day after a long run or high-intensity interval session unveils a regular ritual for runners.

Because of the physical nature of running, runners will be all too familiar with muscle soreness and injuries, making effective recovery strategies crucial for sustained performance.

Enter heat therapy, a longstanding friend in the runner’s toolkit woven into the fabric of recovery rituals with the promise of reducing the risk of injuries and facilitating a quicker return to the trails or roads.

Yet, behind the anecdotal claims lies many questions. What are the benefits of heat therapy, and do they surpass mere gossip? Does science lend credence to the efficacy of heat treatment? And crucially, how does one use heat therapy for maximum benefit?

In this article, we will explore the potential benefits of heat therapy, particularly as a targeted strategy to expedite muscle recovery in runners, focusing on its impact on endurance, muscle function, and overall performance.

Let’s get into it!

A person with a hot water bottle on their knee.

What is heat therapy?

Heat therapy is a well-established therapeutic practice used by both professionals and amateurs alike.

The underlying theory centers on its capacity to enhance blood flow, relax muscles, and reduce stiffness, facilitating the healing process.

For instance, a runner who has been experiencing persistent hip tightness after long runs may incorporate heat therapy into their routine.

Applying heat to the hip flexor muscles before running may improve blood circulation, mitigating muscle cramps and fatigue during the workout.

The increased blood flow is thought to optimize oxygen and nutrient delivery, contributing to overall muscle health and reducing the risk of injury.

A heating blanket.

4 Benefits Of Heat Therapy

#1: Reducing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

While it’s not a magic bullet, heat therapy has shown evidence of alleviating DOMS.

DOMS refers to the muscle pain and stiffness that typically develop 24 to 72 hours after intense or unfamiliar exercise, such as running.

The exact cause of DOMS is not fully understood, but it is believed to involve microscopic damage to muscle fibers and the subsequent inflammatory response.

The repetitive eccentric contractions, where muscles lengthen under tension, can lead to microscopic damage in the muscle fibers, triggering inflammation and the sensation of DOMS in the following days.

Heat therapy can be a valuable tool in managing DOMS and easing the associated discomfort.

A 2021 meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials found that applying heat within one hour of exercise can reduce DOMS pain and promote recovery.1Wang, Y., Li, S., Zhang, Y., Chen, Y., Yan, F., Han, L., & Ma, Y. (2021). Heat and cold therapy reduce pain in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials. Physical Therapy in Sport48(1), 177–187. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2021.01.004

‌Although not a complete solution, heat therapy takes the edge off DOMS, enhancing comfort and motivation for runners to resume their regular routines.

It temporarily relieves stiff muscles and joints, facilitating increased comfort and mobility. Heat therapy can be employed as a pre-run warm-up to enhance flexibility, though dynamic stretches are recommended for optimal priming.

A person with a heating pad on their shoulder.

#2: Reducing Joint Pain & Stiffness

Heat therapy has been shown to have an analgesic effect by modulating pain perception.

Notably, localized heat therapy has demonstrated effectiveness in improving pain and joint function in individuals with knee osteoarthritis.

The application of heat increases the pain threshold, providing relief for conditions such as osteoarthritis. Heat promotes vasodilation and improves tissue oxygenation, contributing to reduced pain sensitivity.

A study published in the “Journal of Clinical Nursing Research” in 2021, involving 117 patients, demonstrated the effectiveness of localized heat therapy in improving pain and joint function in individuals with knee osteoarthritis.2Ariana, M., Afrasiabifar, A., Najafi Doulatabad, S., Mosavi, A., & Behnammoghadam, M. (2021). The Effect of Local Heat Therapy versus Cold Rub Gel on Pain and Joint Functions in Patients with Knee Osteoarthritis. Clinical Nursing Research, 105477382110355. https://doi.org/10.1177/10547738211035502

‌While heat therapy alone may not fully resolve injuries, it can aid in making injured muscles or joints feel better, potentially easing the return to exercise or rehabilitation programs.

A person with lower back pain.

#3: Reduction In Lower Back Pain

Acute low back pain is a prevalent musculoskeletal issue affecting a significant portion of the population globally.

A 2014 study titled “The Efficacy of Thermotherapy and Cryotherapy on Pain Relief in Patients with Acute Low Back Pain” delved into the effectiveness of thermotherapy, accompanied by routine pharmacologic treatment, in alleviating pain for patients with acute low back pain.3Farahbod, F. (2014). The Efficacy of Thermotherapy and Cryotherapy on Pain Relief in Patients with Acute Low Back Pain, a Clinical Trial Study. JOURNAL of CLINICAL and DIAGNOSTIC RESEARCH8(9). https://doi.org/10.7860/jcdr/2014/7404.4818

‌Over the course of the intervention, the thermotherapy group showed a notable reduction in pain intensity. The study highlighted the effectiveness of thermotherapy, complementing pharmacologic treatment, in relieving acute low back pain.

While there is limited evidence on the impact of short-term thermotherapy, this study supports the notion that continuous application of thermotherapy can minimize pain in patients with acute lower back pain.

This non-invasive and accessible method could serve as a valuable supplementary approach to reduce pain, considering its predictably lower side effects and cost-effectiveness.

A person in a hot tub.

#4: Increased Blood Flow

Although this benefit isn’t as specific as the others, an increase in blood flow is inextricably linked to the other benefits. An increase in blood flow is the key mechanism through which heat therapy promotes healing.

Enhanced circulation delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the affected area, facilitating the repair of damaged tissues. Improved blood flow also helps remove metabolic byproducts and toxins, leading to faster recovery.

Heat vs. Ice: Which Is Better?

So, when it comes to which is best, the choice between heat and ice is a personal one. But both heat and ice can offer valuable options for alleviating discomfort.

The decision to use either heat or ice depends on individual preferences and the stage of the injury you are experiencing.

For example, ice therapy may be more beneficial during the initial phase of injury, characterized by inflammation and sharp pain. Brief applications of ice packs can assist in reducing inflammation and offering relief from pain.

As the acute phase subsides and the pain becomes less intense, some individuals might find heat therapy more suitable.

Heat has the potential to relax muscles and enhance blood circulation, providing comfort and alleviating muscle tension associated with the injury.

In practice, alternating between heat and ice therapy can be beneficial. For instance, using ice therapy during flare-ups with increased inflammation and transitioning to heat therapy during periods of muscle tension and stiffness can be effective.

It’s crucial to be attuned to your body’s responses to each therapy and adjust accordingly.

If the pain persists or worsens, be sure to seek guidance from a healthcare professional. They can provide personalized advice and recommend the most suitable treatment plan for your specific injury.

A hot water bottle

How To Apply Heat Therapy

Finding the optimal frequency and duration for heat therapy sessions depends on individual preferences and the specific purpose.

If you’re dealing with soreness and stiffness post-workout or treating an injury, a general guideline is to aim for 15 to 20 minutes of heat application using methods like a heating pad, hot tub, or hot shower.

For enhanced benefits, scheduling a heat therapy session within the first 24 hours after a challenging workout can provide soothing effects on muscle soreness. Listening to your body’s response and adjusting the duration and frequency as needed is important.

Instructions for Local Heat Therapy:

  1. Hot Compress: Apply a hot compress to the specific area of discomfort for 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. Heating Pad: Use a heating pad on the targeted muscle or joint, adjusting the settings for comfort.
  3. Hot Towel: Soak a towel in hot water, wring out excess moisture, and place it on the affected area.
A person in a sauna.

Instructions for Systemic (full body) Heat Therapy:

  1. Hot Bath or Shower: Enjoy a hot bath or shower for 15 to 20 minutes to experience overall muscle relaxation.
  2. Hot Tub: If available, spend time in a hot tub to immerse your body and promote a soothing effect on sore muscles.
  3. Sauna: Consider using a sauna for full-body heat therapy, adjusting the duration based on personal comfort.

Note: While both local and systemic heat therapy options can be effective, localized heat treatment, such as using a hot compress directly on the affected area, has more robust scientific support for targeted relief.

When should you avoid heat therapy?

So, we’ve looked at what heat treatment can offer you, but when should you avoid it? There are a number of situations where heat is not advisable.

Here are a few contraindications you should be aware of:

  • Sensory Changes: Avoid heat therapy if you have impaired sensations, as you may not be able to gauge the temperature properly.
  • Heat-Related Injuries: Do not use heat therapy on injuries resulting from heat, such as burns or hyperthermia.
  • Circulatory Problems: Conditions affecting blood circulation may pose risks during heat therapy.
  • Acute Injury Phase: Some practitioners will advise refraining from heat therapy during the acute phase of an injury.
  • Sensitivity to Heat: Individuals with abnormal sensitivity to heat should exercise caution.
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT): Individuals with DVT should avoid heat therapy to prevent potential complications.
  • Infections and Malignant Tumors: Heat therapy may exacerbate conditions involving infections or malignant tumors due to increased blood flow.
A person in a sauna.

Final Thoughts

Heat therapy emerges as a low-cost, low-risk treatment option for pain reduction and injury recovery.

There is a decent amount of scientific backing, highlighting heat therapies’ role in reducing muscle soreness, easing joint pain, and aiding in lower back pain.

It should be noted that the mechanisms by which heat therapy achieves these outcomes are still not fully understood despite prevailing theories.

It’s crucial to recognize that heat therapy should complement rather than replace other injury-reduction methods, such as physical therapy and strength straining.

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References

  • 1
    Wang, Y., Li, S., Zhang, Y., Chen, Y., Yan, F., Han, L., & Ma, Y. (2021). Heat and cold therapy reduce pain in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials. Physical Therapy in Sport48(1), 177–187. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2021.01.004
  • 2
    Ariana, M., Afrasiabifar, A., Najafi Doulatabad, S., Mosavi, A., & Behnammoghadam, M. (2021). The Effect of Local Heat Therapy versus Cold Rub Gel on Pain and Joint Functions in Patients with Knee Osteoarthritis. Clinical Nursing Research, 105477382110355. https://doi.org/10.1177/10547738211035502
  • 3
    Farahbod, F. (2014). The Efficacy of Thermotherapy and Cryotherapy on Pain Relief in Patients with Acute Low Back Pain, a Clinical Trial Study. JOURNAL of CLINICAL and DIAGNOSTIC RESEARCH8(9). https://doi.org/10.7860/jcdr/2014/7404.4818
Photo of author
Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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