We all feel happier if we are warm not chilly, as long as it doesn’t become an overpowering heatwave of course. (We are British after all, no extremes for us thank you very much.) This preference for being warm is actually rooted in history, when our ancestors in caves knew that cold meant danger, or even extinction, and we still have that inexplicable feeling of safety if we are nice and warm. But heat can be used for more than a cuddly feeling, and is in fact brilliant for natural pain relief, without any of the side effects of drugs to worry about.
So, what is it about heat that brings relief to muscle or joint pain? Well, the main thing heat triggers is vasodilation, or expanding blood vessels to you and me. Our blood carries oxygen and nutrients to the cells round our body, so if the blood vessels dilate, they can increase the supply to the heated area. This helps the affected cells, in a very gentle way, to increase our natural healing process. The other thing that happens is that waste products, like lactic acid from too much exercise, and carbon dioxide, can be eliminated more quickly from the cells. So good things get there quicker, and bad things leave quicker, which is basically a Good Thing.
The sort of pain which responds well to heat therapy, or thermotherapy if you prefer, is usually to do with muscles, which are a much wider source of general pain than we usually realise. Stiffness, cramping, acute pain from exercise, menstrual pain, knotted muscles, and strains and sprains to name but a few. On the other hand, never apply heat to a fresh injury or physically torn muscles, that’s the moment for an ice pack!
If you suffer from migraines, you might well prefer a cold compress on your eyes and forehead, as well as industrial level drugs of course. But headaches and migraines can be triggered by stiff neck and upper back muscles, which respond well to a heat pack to release the tension in that area. This is also good to know if you have a stiff neck or shoulders from too much time at the computer, the curse of modern life.
The benefits of heat therapy are also recommended for arthritis sufferers, because heat increases the stretchiness of collagen tissues in our joints. This improved muscle flexibility helps people get moving in the mornings, or after sitting for too long, by relieving the pain of stiff joints. So, this might mean a hot bath or shower, followed by gentle stretching exercises to improve mobility, or a heat pad to target specifically painful areas. ‘Gently does it’ is the motto here, you don’t want to damage your muscles more.
Of course, don’t underestimate the importance of feeling comforted by cuddling a wheat bag, or having a deep bath, as we do actually experience feeling better because of this. Far from being just a psychological effect, it is what some scientists call applied neurology. Heat stimulates nerve receptors in our skin, which decreases pain signals sent to the brain. So, the feeling of reassurance is actually analgesic, or pain relieving. And of course, our brains interpret warmth as a feeling of safety, and we associate it with contact and intimacy, which lessens feelings of emotional stress and makes all of us feel reassured and happier. Those cave-men knew a thing or two!