Heat Therapy for 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. This increases the circulation to the area where heat is applied. Heat also helps to decrease pain by stimulating sensory receptors that help to block the transmission of pain signals along the nerves.

When Heat Therapy is Effective

Heat therapy can offer benefit in the following scenarios:

  • 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

For acute (new) trauma or acute inflammation (swelling) you might be interested in our article Cold Therapy for Arthritis.

If you are unsure of whether or not to use heat, ask your doctor or physiotherapist.

When to be Careful with Heat Therapy

Cold therapy should be used with caution or possibly avoided in the following scenarios:

  • 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 one or more of these apply to you, or you are concerned about how to safely use heat therapy, check with your doctor or physiotherapist.

Key Points for Safe and Effective Treatment

Its important to remember a few key points to maximize the benefits of heat therapy and avoid causing problems by overdoing it:

Heat should be comfortably warm: Effective heat feels comfortable and not feel like it is burning the skin. If heat is too hot, add one or two towels between the heat source and body part, or remove heat.

Continuously inspect the heated area: The heated area will appear red and possibly sweaty. If heat causes pain in the affected area, remove it and do not continue heat therapy until you consult with a physical therapist.

Use equal periods of heat and rest: Heat can be re-applied after leaving it off for the same period of time that it was applied. Make sure that all redness should be gone before re-applying heat.

Take care with hot packs and electric blankets: Do not lie on a hot pack or electric blanket! Do not fall asleep with a hot pack or electric blanket on your body!

Use safe temperatures: Heat sources should not exceed 45 degrees Celsius/120 degrees Fahrenheit; greater temperatures will cause tissue damage depending on the duration of heat exposure.

How to Apply Heat Therapy

There are a number of methods and techniques that can be used to apply cold therapy treatments at home: