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Deep Heat vs Heat Packs for Pain Relief – The Truth!

deep heat pain heat packHave you ever wondered how deep heat works? Whether deep heat or heat packs are the best option? This is the blog for you. You may also be interested in our blog titled Ice or Heat for Pain and Injuries.

It is well known that heat can enhance healing, provide a feeling of well-being and relieve pain. The physiotherapists at My Physio Perth are commonly asked whether deep heat or a heat pack will prove more beneficial. The answer is relatively simple but there are a few variables to be accounted for. First let’s explain the physiological effect of the two modalities, i.e. what do they actually do to the body?

How a Heat Pack Works

Heat packs come in many shapes and sizes, with wheat bags that are heated in the microwave and hot water bottles being the most common. Both involve a hot object being placed against the skin so that heat is conducted away from the source and absorbed into the body. The net result is an increase in local soft tissue temperature up to a few centimeters deep.

How Deep Heat Works

Many companies manufacture creams and gels that fit under the category of ‘deep heat’. I’m sure you’ve heard of Tiger Balm, Deep Heat, Dencorub, etc. They consist of various chemicals and ‘natural’ ingredients in varying quantities. The cream or gel is applied locally to the affected area and massaged into the skin. There is a common misbelief that these creams and gels magically increase soft tissue temperature in a similar fashion to heat packs. This is not the case as there is no physical heat source to be absorbed by the body! They do however contain a chemical irritant such as capsaicin, which trigger the ‘heat nerves’ in the skin in a similar fashion to chilies on your tongue. This can be labeled as a ‘neurological distraction’ as the area feels hot but in fact there is no increase in temperature.

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So should I use a heat pack or deep heat to relieve my pain?

Whether you apply a heat pack or deep heat cream, the affected area will ‘feel hot’. This is very effective in relieving pain as the brain will concentrate on the overpowering heat signals and forget about the pain temporarily. Therefore both options are great for pain relief.

When to use a heat pack vs deep heat for pain and injuries.

Heat Pack

As discussed, a heat pack will increase local soft tissue (including muscle) temperature up to a few centimeters deep. The increased temperature causes a widening of the blood vessals known as vasodilation to the muscles. In turn there is an increase in blood flow, which can be important for healing in semi-acute and chronic injuries. Heat packs may also assist in reducing muscle tension by relaxing nasty knots or trigger points.

It is important to note that an increase in blood blow in the acute or inflammatory stage of an injury will cause excessive bleeding and swelling and should therefore be avoided.

The feeling of heat and pain relief will last up to 15-20 minutes while the heat pack is in place and for a short period after the heat pack is removed.

Deep Heat Creams

Deep heat creams only irritate the skin and will not cause an increase in blood flow to the muscles. Therefore, you shouldn’t expect any added healing effects however you can be assured that the creams can be applied at any stage of injury without the risk of further damage. Deep heat creams are generally well tolerated and provide a fairly natural form of pain relief, which may last for an hour or two depending on the cream and the individual’s tolerance.

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  • Heat packs and deep heat creams will both make the area feel hot and provide pain relief.
  • Heat packs increase local soft tissue temperature so should be used in semi-acute (after the first few days of an injury) and chronic injuries to assist with healing.
  • Deep heat creams do not increase soft tissue temperature so can be safely used at any stage of injury. Just don’t expect any added healing benefits.

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