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Heat Packs | Hot Packs | Arthritis
Heat can help to decrease pain, relieve muscle spasm, increase the ability of muscles and other tissues to stretch, and improve circulation to the underlying tissue or joint.
Heat works by vasodilating (expanding) the blood vessels thereby increasing the circulation to the area. Heat also helps to decrease pain by stimulating sensory receptors that help to block the transmission of pain along the nerves.
When should I use heat?
- For pain relief not associated with acute (new) trauma or acute inflammation (swelling)
- To relieve muscle spasms and muscle tightness
- To enhance muscular flexibility or range of motion of your joints
When should I be careful using heat?
- Over an area with compromised circulation or sensation
- Over an acutely inflamed or swollen joint
- Over an open wound or infected area
- In the presence of a confirmed malignancy/cancer
- Medical conditions such as hemophilia
- If unsure whether to use heat check with your doctor or physiotherapist
How do I apply heat?
Hot Water Bottle
- This technique can be used for most body parts. A soft rubber container filled with hot water. Apply a damp towel to the skin to improve heat conduction.
- Apply 10 – 15 minutes
- This technique can be used for most body parts. You can buy packs composed of silicate gel, beans, or corn (i.e. magic bags). Alternatively, you can make a pack by wetting a towel and placing it in a plastic bag. Microwave it for 2 minutes. Carefully remove. Apply a damp towel to skin to improve comfort and conduction.
- Apply 10 – 15 minutes
Hot Water (whirlpool) Baths
- This technique is usually used for limbs such as hands, arms, ankles, and feet, depending on the size of the bath. Water is mixed with air into a jet stream that stimulates receptors in our bodies that help to decrease pain, improve circulation, and increase range of motion. Water temperature is usually between 36 – 41 degrees Celsius.
- Apply 15 – 20 minutes
- Alternating the use of cold and warm water. Fill one bowl with warm water and one with cold water. Soak in cold water for 30 seconds and warm water for 30 seconds.
- Apply for a total of 5 – 10 minutes
- These are used primarily in hospital settings however smaller units can be purchased for home use. These are usually used for the hands and wrist. Paraffin wax is used in conjunction with a mineral oil so that the melting point can be lowered. Most baths are kept at a temperature of 42 – 52 degrees Celsius. The limb is usually immersed in wax about 6 times. The limb is then wrapped in plastic and a towel, to keep heat in.
- Apply for 10 – 15 minutes.
- Most commonly used for the neck or back to help decrease muscle spasm or promote relaxation, although can be used for any body part. An electric resistance wire is contained in a suitable fabric that when heated warms the fabric and provides conductive heating to the skin. Continuously check skin for signs of over heating.
Things to remember when using heat:
- Heat should be comfortably warm. The heat should not feel like it is burning your skin. If heat is too hot, add one or two towels between the heat source and body part, or remove heat.
- Continuously inspect area that is being heated. The area will appear red and possibly sweaty. If, however, the heat has caused pain in the area, it should be removed and not continued until you consult with your physical therapist.
- Heat can be re-applied after leaving it off for the same period of time for which it was applied. All redness should be gone before re-applying.
- Do not fall asleep on a hot pack or electric blanket!
- Do not lie on a hot pack or electric blanket!
- Heat source should not exceed 45 degrees Celsius/120 degrees Fahrenheit; greater temperatures will cause tissue damage depending on time of heat exposure.