Moist Heat vs. Dry Heat for Pain: Which is better?
Pain is a word with so many diverse meanings, formed around the perspective of a common discomfort that every person has had the misfortune of encountering countless times in this life. As is mandatory with the experience of pain, we seek needfully for any form of relief. At times we desperately grasp for methods that show no results and could even be an aggressor.
Discussed here are the dos and don'ts and the pros and cons of heat therapy. We will use these to gauge each against the other when it comes to the benefits of dry or moist heat. We will also compare which is the most effective or best suited as a relief to the pain you may be experiencing.
What is heat therapy?
Heat therapy is the application of warmth on any affected area of the body. It is intent on heating the deeper tissues of muscles or nerves to reduce the pain associated with stiff muscles. It is also good for back strain. Heat therapy also has other beneficial purposes, but we will only be discussing its uses in treating pain. Heat therapy is most efficient when applied correctly.
The product that you use should not be too hot but rather considerably warm. It should be capable of retaining its heat for at least 30 minutes. Warming the skin for only a few seconds will not relieve the pain.
However, the product should not burn or damage the skin so that it can be used long enough for the best results. It has to heat to effectively warm up the deepest reaches of the affected area.
The longer the heat therapy is applied, the better the result of relief will be. The amount of time spent in therapy is related to the type of injury or cause of the pain. The more severe the case, the longer the amount of time that should be spent for the best effect. Although, for minor causes, shorter periods of treatment will be good enough.
There are known medical restrictions to apply heat therapy, in which case it might not be therapeutic. If the area is swollen or bruised, heat is not an option. For patients with heart diseases or who suffer from hypertension, it’s recommended to consult a doctor before applying heat therapy.
Noted restrictions of heat therapy
Besides swollen and bruised areas, one should also avoid using heat therapy in the following cases.
Open wounds: Open wounds should not be treated with heat. It will increase the humidity of the wound and create the perfect breeding ground for infections. Avoid the use of heat therapy for the relief of pain associated with cuts or scrapes. And avoid if open sores or skin irritation are present near the affected area.
Dermatitis: Dermatitis is a general term applied to skin rashes or irritations. It also includes eczema and other medical conditions that relate to skin disorders. Heat therapy is not recommended for patients suffering from dermatological afflictions, as it could aggravate the condition in most cases.
Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVP): It is not recommended to use heat therapy on patients looking to relieve the pain of DVP. Deep vein thrombosis is usually experienced as pain accompanied by swelling of the affected area. It tends to occur in the legs.
Blood clots that form in the deep veins running through the calf and thigh muscles can cause blood flow restrictions.
That promotes pain and swelling in the affected leg. Deep vein thrombosis is also known to occur in other deep veins but such cases are rarely encountered.
Diabetes: People who suffer from diabetes are warned to seek medical aid before using heat therapy for pain relief.
Peripheral Vascular Disease (PVD): Patients who suffer from the narrowing of veins or arteries are not recommended for heat therapy. PVD is a disease that causes blood flow restrictions to specific muscles because of the narrowing, blocking, or spasms of veins. This all results in pain and cramps in the affected area. Heat therapy for the relief of pain associated with peripheral vascular disease isn’t recommended.
Severe Cognitive Impairment: The use of heat therapy is not recommended to be used on patients who have severe cognitive impairment.
How does heat therapy work?
The use of heat has long been applied for comfort and relaxation, as progressed by spa resorts all over the world. You find it in the form of saunas, steam baths, and plenty of other methods. However, using it as a relief for pain is easily overlooked.
Some doctors may neglect to mention it to a patient, even though it can have benefits for many ailments. The reason is perhaps not because it isn’t an option, but the mere practicality and simplicity of applying it. Most patients who visit a doctor because of the uncomfortable experience of pain, expect a complicated problem.
Doctors often face the difficulty of having to explain what may be simple medical terms to a patient. This often results in physicians overlooking simple remedies, and they may point in the direction of a cure that can be trusted.
How does heat therapy work, and can it be trusted?
The exertion of muscles, which can occur because of fatigue, health, fitness, strain, or injury, causes tension in the muscles. It also causes tension in the soft tissues, often resulting in pain. Lower back pain, also caused by the aforementioned conditions, along with muscular pain, can be treated with heat therapy.
The greatest cause of the pain is due to low blood circulation, which is caused by the tension in the muscles and tissues constricting the veins. This causes nerves to send pain signals to the brain. To relieve the cause of the pain efficiently, heat can be applied to both improve circulation and relax the muscles.
Listed below are a few ways heat therapy helps relieve pain:
Improved dilation: Heat therapy improves the blood flow of the surrounding area by using heat to expand the veins. Thus it improves blood dilation to the affected area. This helps the heat easily reach the muscles, tissues, and nerves that it should. Muscles are extremely dependent on oxygen for the correct expansion and retraction, or pulling, of a muscle.
Nutrients and oxygen are fed into muscles through blood vessels, and, therefore, a restricted feed can result in severe pain. By increasing the blood flow, the primary cause is treated. To reach the most promising benefit, the therapy should be applied for anything from a minimum of 15 to 30 minutes.
The heat needs to reach the deeper tissues restricting the blood flow to relieve the tension causing it. The increase of nutrients and oxygen to the damaged area will speed up recovery by enhancing the body’s natural healing process.
Immediate relief: Heat stimulates receptors in the skin that send a sensory message to the brain. This causes the signals of pain messages to diminish, resulting in near-instant relief for muscle or back pain. Take care, though, that the receptors are not overstimulated by too hot a treatment. That will result in more pain signals and will only worsen the condition.
Increase in muscle elasticity: The application of heat to a muscle is well known for improving its stretching ability and increasing its natural flexibility. Also, it improves the ability to relieve tension. Heat therapy treatment will eliminate stiffness in muscles to promote better flexibility and comfort, relieving the pain of sore muscles.
There are several more beneficial processes at work in heat therapy, and it sounds almost like a miracle cure. However, most physicians and therapists would best recommend using it in co-treatment with other programs.
Consider physiotherapy and exercise, to achieve optimal results, especially in more severe cases.
Types of Heat therapy
There are two varieties of heat therapy, dry or wet, that both have different means of application and different benefits. One type of therapy may be more beneficial to a specific patient. It is recommended to experiment. Check the different types and means of applying each type to find the best suitable relief for you.
Dry Heat: Dry heat comes in the form of anything that doesn’t require moisture to warm the skin, such as electric heating pads and infrared saunas. Unfortunately, this treatment dehydrates the skin by drawing moisture from the body. The skin should be post-treated to restore the moisture balance and prevent discomfort or irritation. People have found dry heat very therapeutic, and, as long as you don’t exceed the recommended exposure, it won't cause severe discomfort.
Moist heat: Moist heat therapy comes in the form of moisture used to heat the skin and deeper tissues through prolonged exposure. Some common examples of this type of therapy would be a hot bath or steam saunas, or moist heating packs. Some have found that moist heat offers better pain relief than dry heat and is very relaxing to use.
Dry or moist heat can be applied by different means. There are several consumables available to purchase that you can use at home for relief of pain.
Hot water bottles: Hot water bottles are a convenient method to apply heat therapy. The best part is that you can find them in possibly every home. A hot water bottle will keep its heat for 20 to 30 minutes and is ideal to use on areas surrounding the spine. Take care that the water is not too hot and that the bottle is not applied directly to the skin. Rather place it on a towel for safety. Do not lie on top of it; instead, allow gravity to assist with the efforts so it can be more relaxing.
Electric heating pads: Electric-powered heating pads can be bought from different manufacturers and are also locally available at any pharmaceutical retailer. They offer constant heat that can be adjusted to your needs and comfort. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are a safe means by which you can apply dry heat therapy at home. It is advised to read and follow the instructions of the product that you buy for your safety.
Gel packs: Gel packs can provide both dry and moist heat therapy, ranging between the various products available for purchase. Gel packs are either heated in water or can be microwaved. They retain heat for up to 30 minutes, making them ideal for use as a heat therapy applicant. Alternatively, gel packs can also be used for cold therapy, in case there is swelling and bruising. They may also be found in a self-heating version. They are safe to use and easy to apply.
Heat wraps: Heat wraps are an extremely useful and convenient form of heat therapy that can provide constant low heat for continued use. They can be used throughout the day. People who are recovering from strain but can’t afford to miss work will appreciate the relief offered by heat wraps. They are also great if you need to travel or keep a household running while in pain. Heat wraps can be purchased from general stores or drug stores and are easily applied.
Hot baths: A hot bath is convenient and quick for immediate relief from any uncomfortable pain from back strain or exertion. You can also include regular visits to a hot tub, steam sauna, or steam bath for additional therapy.
Between the two therapies of moist heat vs dry heat for pain, moist heat is found to be more effective. Moist heat tends to penetrate deeper and quicker because water molecules conduct heat better than air or your body. Moist heat reaches deeper than dry heat at the same temperature.
Moist heat extends the receptive quality of temperature receptors to increase the rate at which tissue warms up, evidently improving recovery.
Patients have found better, instant relief from moist heat therapy at a far better success rate. In the end, it is up to you, but this treatment comes highly recommended.