Hot Packs

Photo of a woman using heat on her back.
Your PT may use hot packs to help treat your condition.. Lea Patterson Service Photo Library/ Getty Images

What are hot packs and how are they used in physical therapy?

Hot packs are a type of physical modality often used in physical therapy clinics. They are applied to your injured body part by your phyiscal therapist. Physical therapists wrap moist hot packs in several layers of towels. They are then applied directly on the exposed area that needs treatment.

Benefits of Hot Packs

The heat provided by the hot packs has several important benefits.

These may include:

  • Relaxes tight muscles causing tissues to relax.
  • Decreases pain caused by muscle tension or spasms.
  • Causes vasodilatation of the blood vessels which increases circulation to the area.

Increased circulation to your injured body part helps to bring in nutrients, oxygen, and cells that help to promote healing.

Who Beneifts from Using Hot Packs?

Patients with certain conditions typically benefit from using hot packs in the physical therapy clinic. These conditions may include:

  • Arthritis
  • Chroinc pain
  • Joint contracture
  • Muscle spasms
  • Chronic injury where increased blood flow is desired

After injury, heat helps to increase tissue extensibility and improve the way your muscles move, so just about anyone can benefit from using heat and hot packs as part of a physical therapy program.

Who Should Avoid Using Hot Packs?

There are certain conditions where using moist heat and hot packs should be avoided.

These may include:

  • In areas of impaired or altered sensitivity (like have numbness or tingling)
  • In people with impaired mental capacity
  • Over open wounds
  • After acute injury
  • Over joint with acute hemarthrosis
  • In persons with multiple sclerosis who are sensitive to heat

If you have an injury and are considering using heat, you should check in with your doctor to ensure that using hot packs is as safe thing for you to do.

A visit to your physical therapist can help determine if you should be using heat.

How Long Should Heat Be Used?

Heat and hot packs are often applied to your body for 10 to 15 minutes. Frequent checks should be made to ensure that you are not getting too hot and to avoid skin damage. If you are getting too warm, you must remove the hot pack from your body. Using heat multiple times a day is not recommended, as it may damage your skin.

A Few Words of Caution

If you are going to a physical therapist, he or she may use heat to help treat your condition. Using heat on a long term basis may not be recommended, as it may cause erythema ab igne, a condition marked by mottled and discolored skin. There may be some evidence that this increases the likelihood of skin cancer, but research is not 100% accurate on this claim.

Physical therapists are movement experts, and you should be engaged in an active rehab program to improve range of motion and strength to improve functional mobility. Hot packs are a passive modality where you are required to no nothing.

This puts your overall health in the hands of your physical therapist and not in your control. Be sure that if you use hot packs in the PT clinic, you are also engaged in exercise and active rehab. If your PT only uses passive treatments such as heat, ultrasound, or electrical stimulation, ask to be more involved in an active rehab program. If passive treatment continues, it may be time to find a new physical therapist.

If you have an injury that causes pain or limited functional mobility, you should check in with your doctor and visit your physical therapist to work to get back to full function. Your PT may use modalities - like hot packs - to help augment your physical therapy program. Using hot packs can feel good and get you on the right track to full functional mobility.

Edited by Brett Sears, PT

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