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Choosing Heat for Physical Therapy Complaints

Beth Jennings, PT


Cupping your hands around a warm cup of coffee. 

Soaking in a hot bath.

Snuggling with Fluffy Von Barkenstein on the couch. 

If these images conjure up feelings of relaxation, you recognize one of the benefits of using heat therapeutically. 

In one of my previous posts, “Choosing Ice for Physical Therapy Complaints,” you learned to use ice on new injuries, after recent surgeries, or after intense workouts. Now, we need to review when and why you would use heat on your aches and pains.


Therapeutic Uses of Heat

Decreases tissue and joint tightness. A 2001 study showed that using heat in combination with stretching can improve flexibility compared to stretching alone. Tight muscles or tight joints? Try a little heat before or during gentle activity to get things moving.

Reduces pain. Heat shouldn’t be the only tool in your pain-relieving toolbox since it will likely only provide short-term relief. But short-term might be all you need. 

Promotes relaxation. Whether mentally or physically, heat can relax muscle spasms and reduce muscle tension, which in turn can provide pain relief. 

Increases blood flow to the area. This can be helpful in healing or helping muscles relax. Unfortunately, heat also has the potential to create more swelling and inflammation. Consider ice for new injuries, recent surgeries, or after a workout. 

Consider an appointment with one of our physical therapists at FYZICAL - Forest Grove to learn what other tools you might use with heat to manage tightness, spasms, or pain.

Types of Heat Therapy


Hot water: your bathtub, a hot tub, a local hot springs. The length of time depends on the temperature and your tolerance. Be careful to not overheat.

Hot pack: an electric heating pad, hot water bottle, gel-filled pack, or a grain-filled pad. Apply for 15-30 minutes. 

Paraffin bath: warm wax in a small tank used on hands or feet. You dip your hand or foot in the wax to create a coating, then wrap the area with plastic wrap first, then towels to hold in the heat. Relax for 15 minutes, then follow up with movement or exercises. 


Be Careful, Though!


Burns: Yes, it’s possible to get a burn from any hot pack. Don’t fall asleep on an electric heating pad if it doesn’t have an automatic shut off. Also, consider that the elderly are more susceptible to burns, and their skin should be monitored more closely.

Overheating: More of a concern with baths, hot tubs, and hot springs, signs of overheating can include lightheadedness, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. The elderly and those with high blood pressure should consult with their healthcare provider before considering these methods. 


Final Thoughts

When it comes to my patients in the clinic, I will never just apply heat for 20 minutes then send them home. This should be the same for your self-treatment. If you are dealing with an injury or pain, you shouldn’t think of it as a solo treatment if you hope to gain any long-term results.

But if you just want to relax, then go ahead and enjoy that hot bubble bath. 

If you have questions about using heat or ice for your issues, set up an appointment with one of our physical therapists today. Give us a call at (503) 357-1706 or stop by our office.

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Beth Jennings is a freelance writer and physical therapist.

Disclaimer This blog is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.


Knight CA, Rutledge CR, Cox ME, Acosta M, Hall SJ. Effect of superficial heat, deep heat, and active exercise warm-up on the extensibility of the plantar flexors. Physical Therapy. 2001;81(6):1206-1214. doi:10.1093/ptj/81.6.1206

  1. PT, S. MB, A. M. Efficacy of Superficial Heat Therapy as an Adjunct to Therapeutic Exercise Program in Rehabilitation of Patients with Conservatively Managed Distal End Radius Fractures. Indian Journal of Physiotherapy & Occupational Therapy. 2015;9(2):102-107. doi:10.5958/0973-5674.2015.00062.3

Michlovitz S, Rennie S. In: Modalities for Therapeutic Intervention, 6th Ed. F.A. Davis Company; 2016. Accessed February 3, 2021.