The use of moist heat therapy has been proven to improve mobility, prevent stiffness, and make movement easier and less painful. It is very beneficial if you are struggling with chronic hand pain and stiffness from hand arthritis, fractures, or surgeries.

Moist heat is pretty much a staple in rehabilitation clinics around the country.  Athletic Trainers and Physical Therapists often apply moist heat to an injured, painful body part either before or after performing exercises or stretches.  The reason is because moist heat has many benefits beyond making you feel better.

Proven to Help Hand Pain Sufferers

According to a US National Library of Medicine study, moist heat decreased pain in a shorter time frame than dry heat. In their study, 100 subjects exercised for 15 minutes. Groups were divided into dry heat and moist meat application after exercise and 24 hours after exercise. The moist heat was applied for 2 hours and the dry heat for 8 hours. Results revealed the greatest reduction of pain shown was immediately following application of moist heat.

The researchers concluded that “Clinically, it has been shown that moist heat penetrates deep tissue faster than dry heat, within only 25% of the time of application of the dry heat.”

Bottom line:
You should apply moist heat for chronic pain or minor sore muscles to feel better sooner.

Image of large heating wrap applied over neck

Why Use Moist Heat for Hand Pain and Stiffness

  1. The warm temperature radiates from your heat source, and dilates the blood in the area where it is applied. This increases the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the joints and muscles, making blood flow smoother and increasing ease of your movement.
  2. Damaged tissue can heal from the the increased flow of oxygen and nutrients moist heat provides.
  3. Moist heat helps stretch the soft tissues around connective tissue and joints, decreasing stiffness and increasing flexibility in tendons and ligaments.
  4. Heat stimulates the sensory receptors in the skin, which means applying heat can decrease the pain signals transmitted to the brain, helping to relieve discomfort.

The warmth from heat therapy can decrease muscle spasms and increase range of motion.

Types of Moist Heat Applications for Hand Pain and Stiffness:

Image of hand dipping in paraffin wax
Example of a Paraffin Bath

Paraffin baths

Moist heat packs

Warming Gel mittens 

Chemical heat wraps

Heating pad with moist gel inserts

Hot water bottle/Warm water in sink or bowl

Ultrasound – Applied in rehabilitation clinics by licensed healthcare providers.

Whirlpools/Hot tubs/Steam baths

It is important to note that you can have TOO much heat; this can damage tissue. Certainly, apply a towel or pillow case between your skin and the heat source, especially using heat packs or wraps.

When to Use Moist Heat for Hand Pain and Stiffness

  1. Use moist heat therapy regularly to improve mobility in your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders, to prevent stiffness and make movement easier.
  2. If you have arthritis in your hands; moist heat wraps specifically made for the hands prior to movement can provide you targeted relief to the small, stiff joints in the fingers.
  3. Try hot baths with Epsom salts for overall relief at the end of the day.
  4. Regular activity is crucial for improving overall physical health. Yoga, Tai Chia, Pilates, gentle exercises can improve your mobility and help build strength. After exercise, use your moist heat to calm down areas that may have been stressed during the exercise.
  5. After a workout, you can alternate heat and cold therapy to reduce inflammation in the joints. It can provide minor pain relief.

Alternating heat and cold after a workout can be helpful in providing pain relief. This type of temperature therapy can increase blood flow to the muscles and decrease inflammation that may have been spurred by vigorous movements.

When Heat Is Not an Option

Finally, you may not want to apply heat under certain circumstances. For example, you shouldn’t use heat if you hand is swollen, red, or bruised. Above all, consult a physician if you have heart disease or hypertension. Heat application is also not suitable if you have these conditions:

  • Dermatitis
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Diabetes
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • Open wound
  • Severe cognitive impairment
  • Infection

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