Thermotherapy, or heat therapy, turns up in more than 26,000 scientific papers in the National Library of Medicine, and the list of conditions treated is diverse. That’s not surprising since people have been using heat to heal diseases and disorders for millennia. Hippocrates prescribed water and steam baths for pain and skin conditions, Native Americans sat in sweat lodges for rheumatism and other ailments, and cultures around the world have long recognized the healing properties of soaking in hot water.
The reason the benefits of thermotherapy are so diverse is because heat applied to specific areas or systemically to raise body temperature induces a number of physiological changes that result in significant healing throughout the body.
Thermotherapy for Pain Relief
One of the most common applications and benefits of thermotherapy is natural pain relief. Raising tissue temperatures relaxes the muscles, reduces spasms and achiness, and improves range of motion. And because it also dilates the blood vessels, which boosts the delivery of oxygen and nutrients and the removal of metabolic waste products, it facilitates healing as well.
Hot showers or baths, heating pads, moist towels, and reusable hot packs are great for treating yourself at home. In a clinical setting, high-intensity laser and infrared light therapy radiate specific wavelengths of light through the skin and into the underlying tissues, where they increase tissue temperatures, dilate blood vessels, and rev up cellular metabolism—all of which result in safe, effective pain relief.
Infrared light has a particularly good track record with neuropathy—an often-debilitating condition that is particularly prevalent in the lower extremities of people with diabetes—improving sensation, mobility, and quality of life. High-intensity laser, which penetrates even deeper, produces remarkable outcomes for all kinds of pain syndromes.
Help for Heart Disease, Diabetes, and Cancer
Thermotherapy is also a promising treatment for serious diseases. Heating the entire body and raising the core temperature increases heart rate, cardiac output (the amount of blood being pumped), and circulation. It also triggers the production of nitric oxide, a signaling molecule that dilates the arteries and protects the vascular endothelium—the thin layer of cells lining the blood vessel walls, which plays a key role in hypertension, atherosclerosis, and other cardiovascular conditions.
Japanese researchers tested the benefits of thermotherapy in patients with high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity by treating them with two-week courses of 15 minutes of infrared sauna followed by 30 minutes under a warm blanket. Significant improvements were noted across the board—including drops in blood sugar and body fat!
Because the positive effects of systemic thermotherapy on nitric oxide, cardiovascular markers, and insulin sensitivity are remarkably similar to those of exercise, the researchers proposed that regular saunas or hot baths are not only an excellent adjunct therapy but may be a viable option for patients with heart failure, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes who are unable to exercise.
When it comes to the benefits of thermotherapy, the most intense area of research currently underway is cancer. Full-body thermotherapy mimics fever in the sense that it steps up the activity of natural killer cells, T-lymphocytes, and other immune cells. It also has direct effects on tumor cells, which due to their abnormal vasculature are more sensitive to high temperatures. Furthermore, it dramatically increases the uptake of chemotherapeutic agents by malignant cells.
Broad Benefits of Thermotherapy
All of us could use a little heat from time to time. Full-body thermotherapy that works up a sweat mobilizes toxins and facilitates their removal via the skin. Warm compresses relieve muscle aches and dry eyes and help clear up sties, pimples, and minor skin infections. And there’s nothing like a hot, relaxing bath to relieve stress and promote sleep.
I’m so sold on heat therapy that I have an infrared sauna in my home and spend 20–30 minutes in it most mornings. Infrared saunas, which use radiant energy to warm the body directly rather than heating the air, feel great and are much more comfortable than conventional saunas. In addition to feeling great, I know I’m reaping multiple health benefits of thermotherapy.
Gaining the Benefits of Thermotherapy
Here is what I recommend for utilizing the different types of heat therapy:
- To relieve chronic pain, apply heating pads, compresses, warm water, etc., over the affected area. Do not use on acute injuries (as it may increase inflammation) and be wary of burns.
- For full-body thermotherapy, soak in a hot bath or sit in an infrared sauna for at least 15 minutes several times a week. Home infrared saunas are relatively easy to install. Caution: These therapies are not recommended for pregnant women.