Heat Therapy

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2023

Heat therapy involves applying something warm to a body part to ease pain. While heat can be a trigger for some people with migraine, others find that heat therapy can be soothing when they have an attack. What works for one person may not work for another, and the treatment approach is often very unique to the individual.

Heat therapy has not been scientifically proven to relieve migraine attacks, but it has shown benefit in people with tension headaches. People with migraine can also get tension headaches in addition to their migraine attacks, and heat can be helpful in easing this pain.

Types of heat therapy

Heat therapy may use dry or moist heat. Dry heat may involve using a heating pad or visiting a sauna. Moist heat includes hot baths, steamed towels, or moist heat packs. Moist heat warms the tissues of the body more quickly because water transfers heat faster than air.

Heat therapy is most commonly used for conditions like:

  • Arthritis or achy joints
  • Stiff muscles

How does heat help pain?

Heat stimulates nerve endings called thermoreceptors, which may block the pain signals from that area to the brain. Heat therapy also increases blood flow to the area and relaxes muscles. The increased blood flow is believed to help with pain because it increases oxygen, proteins, and other nutrients to the area in pain.

Sometimes heat therapy is used in conjunction with cold therapy, with people in pain applying something heated for a time and then switching to a cold compress or ice pack.

Different products for heat therapy

  • Heating pads or moist heat pad
  • Heat lamps
  • Warm baths
  • Warm showers
  • Heated, moist washcloths or towels
  • Hot water bottle
  • Heated pool
  • Hot packs
  • Heat wrap
  • Warm bath or shower
  • Warm whirlpool or hot tub
  • Saunas
  • Parrafin baths

Possible side effects of heat therapy

  • Burn or discomfort to the skin if the product’s temperature is too high
  • Burn can also occur with heating pads or other devices, even if they are on low if they remain in contact with a body part for an extended period of time

These are not all the possible side effects of heat therapy. Patients should talk to their doctor about what to expect with treatment with heat therapy.

Who should not use heat therapy for migraine?

Before starting any type of therapy, you should consult your doctor, particularly if you are pregnant or nursing.

Also check with your doctor if you have heart disease, diabetes, skin problems or any circulatory problems. People with these conditions should avoid hot tubs, whirlpools, saunas and spas.

Stop the heat therapy immediately if you experience severe numbness in the area you’re applying the heat and see your doctor.

People with open wounds, decreased sensation in the skin and bleeding disorders should avoid heat therapy.

As always, the best source for advice on treating migraine is your own migraine specialist. These descriptions of natural remedies are provided only for informational purposes. You should begin no medication or supplement without first checking with your health care provider and should let them know of any other prescriptions, OTCs, and herbals you are taking to ensure there are no interactions.

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