Heat Therapy in Sports Rehabilitation

Heat therapy

Heat treatment is used as a therapy for many sports-related musculoskeletal injuries. Here we explain when and how to use heat for treating sports injuries.


What are the benefits of heat?

Apply heat therapy for treating sports injuries has a number of benefits. These include:

  • Reducing pain.
  • Reducing joint stiffness.
  • Decreases muscle spasm.
  • Increases blood flow to the area, which therefore promotes healing.

When should I use heat treatments?

Heat therapy should be used for chronic sports injuries and late-stage acute injuries. A chronic injury is one that has persisted for some time. They are caused by overuse and/or biomechanical issues, as opposed to a traumatic incident. Heat can be used before exercise to warm your muscles, but should be avoided immediately after exercise. This is because strenuous exercise may cause micro trauma in the muscles.

How to apply heat to the body?

  • At home, the easiest way of applying heat to an injury is by using a widely available heat pack. These can be made of varying materials, often gel or wheat-based which either require heating in a microwave or submerging in hot water.
  • Wrapping such an item in a towel and applying it to the injury is perfectly suitable. This should be applied for 15-20 minutes at a time. Warm, damp towels, warm baths, and heat rubs can also be easily used at home although may not be as effective at warming deeper tissues.
  • If you are lucky enough to have a hot tub, then a long soak is a great way of relaxing muscles and stimulating blood flow.
  • Ultrasound therapy – a professional therapist may use ultrasound in continuous (as opposed to pulsed) mode. This transmits high frequency sound waves, vibrates tissue molecules, which has a heating effect.

Contraindications to using heat therapy?

A contraindiaction is something which indicates that applying heat to treatment should NOT be done. It could be damaging and harmful, or may an existing condition worse. Contraindications to heat therapy include:

  • Sensory changes – this is where you may not be able to feel sensations. If your heat pack is too hot you would not be able to tell.
  • Heat injury – treating a heat related injury such as a burn, hyperthermia or similar is not a great idea!
  • Hyper or hypo-sensitive to heat. This is where you are more (or less) sensitive to heat than normal.
  • Circulatory problems.
  • During the acute phase of injury.
  • DVT – Deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot in a vein.
  • Infections
  • Malignant tumours

Most contraindications to heat therapy are due to the massive increases in blood flow to the area. With conditions such as infection or malignant tumours, heat would increase the risk of spreading the infected, or cancerous cells.

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