Heat therapy is exactly what it sounds like: the use of warm and hot temperatures to treat a wide range of medical issues and improve overall health.
In fact, peer-reviewed studies have found that heat therapy can effectively:
- Reduce pain.
- Increase blood flow.
- Improve sleep.
- Reduce the effects of asthma and allergies.
- Treat depression.
Ahead, we’ll look at exactly how heat therapy – whether from a sauna, hot tub or bath – has been proven to offer those five benefits.
1. Reduced Pain
While cold therapy can numb nerve endings and reduce inflammation, heat therapy can also be a fantastic form of pain relief.
According to a 2014 article from the Cleveland Clinic titled “Should You Use Ice or Heat for Pain?,” heat can be used for:
- Arthritis: Moist heat is known to loosen stiff joints and soothe sore muscles.
- Muscle spasms: Thanks to its relaxing properties, moist heat can reduce and eliminate painful muscle spasms.
- Sprains: After bringing down sprain inflammation with ice, heat can help get rid of lingering stiffness.
- Tendinosis: Tendinosis is a type of chronic pain that makes tendons and joints feel stiff and painful. Heat therapy can help to relieve those symptoms once the initial inflammation has been treated.
Just be sure to refrain from using heat therapy on inflamed areas (heat can make inflammation worse).
2. Increased Blood Flow
When it comes to blood flow, heat therapy is a superstar. No matter its source, heat works quickly to open up the blood vessels, allowing more blood to pump through the body and toward the skin.
Blood flow is important for many reasons. As stated in a 2018 article from Medical News Today, “How to improve circulation,” blood flow delivers oxygen and other nutrients to cells while simultaneously whisking away waste.
One 1991 study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, “The Effect of Therapeutic Modalities on Blood Flow in the Human Calf,” revealed that a hot pack caused a “significant” increase in blood flow during application.
The same study also found that blood flow returned to normal almost immediately after the hot pack was removed. This could indicate that heat therapy may be easier to control during self-treatment, unlike other more complex therapies.
If you have a heart condition, however, be sure to check with your doctor before engaging in any form of heat therapy.
3. Improved Sleep
Believe it or not, heat therapy can significantly improve your sleep, especially in the form of a warm bath.
This is supported by a 1985 study published in the journal Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, “Night-time sleep EEG changes following body heating in a warm bath.” There, researchers examined the effects of both warm and cool bath on sleep.
While cool baths had no significant effect on sleep, warm baths produced notable increases in:
- Sleepiness at bedtime.
- Stage three sleep, otherwise known as slow-wave sleep or deep sleep. This stage of sleep is associated with physical healing and growth, immune system regeneration, and energy restoration.
- Stage four sleep, otherwise known as the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. This stage is associated with memory formation, learning and mood improvement.
With those results in mind, it’s clear that heat therapy can drastically improve sleep quality and may even have positive effects on overall health.
4. Reduced Symptoms of Asthma and Allergies
While not a substitute for prescription asthma and allergy medication, steam can help relieve the symptoms of both conditions.
Let’s start with asthma. Anju Peters, MD, a professor at Northwestern University, discussed the topic in a 2011 article in Everyday Health, “Natural Remedy Options for Asthma Treatment.”
There, Peters said that steam can relieve asthma symptoms like congestion and irritation by providing moisture to the airways. However, asthma sufferers should be careful to avoid steam that’s too hot — a nice, warm steam bath will do just fine.
In terms of allergies, an article from the U.S. National Library of Health titled “Stuffy or runny nose – adult ” recommends inhaling warm (not hot) steam two to four times daily to relieve congestion caused by illness or allergies. That’s because steam thins mucus, which in turn helps it drain from the nose and sinuses.
So, next time your airways are feeling tight, congested or dry, try relaxing in the warm steam of a bath, hot tub or sauna.
5. Treatment of Depression
The benefits of heat therapy go beyond the physical: in patients with depression, hyperthermia (elevated body temperature) can produce positive results.
Take for example a 2017 study published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “Effects of hyperthermia on depression, sleep and heart rate variability in patients with depressive disorder: a randomized clinical pilot trial.”
In that study, participants were given two hot baths per week for four weeks, while others were given a placebo treatment. In just that short amount of time, the participants who received hot baths showed a marked decrease in depressive symptoms.
With all of those benefits in mind, it’s clear that heat therapy can offer a slew of real benefits for a variety of conditions both mental and physical.
To enjoy the benefits of heat therapy at home, you can use a hot tub, sauna or even tanning bed.
Whether you’re looking to relieve pain, increase blood flow, enjoy improved sleep, treat asthma and allergies or reduce depressive symptoms, heat therapy could be a quick and effective form of treatment.