Sharik Khullar from Delhi used to love the winter, but not anymore. For the last few years, his 62-year-old, otherwise active mother is unable to even get out of bed. None of her usual medicated creams and over-the-counter painkillers seem to be doing the trick anymore; the pain has become unmanageable, leaving her disheartened at being inactive and unable to do anything around the house.
Khullar’s mother is not alone. A recent study on knee-pain patterns assessed periodically over 12 years in a representative UK population found that nearly 63% of women aged 50 and above experienced knee pain at least once, persistently or intermittently, over such a period.
Closer home, in India, nearly 90% of people suffer from damaged knee joints by the age of 60-65 years, which gets worse in the mornings and during the winter, according to doctors.
Frequent knee pain affects about 25% of adults, with knee osteoarthritis being the most common cause in people aged 50 years and above. In India, too, it is the leading cause of disability, affecting over 15 million Indians each year. This condition is caused by the gradual degeneration of the joint, when the cartilage that protects the bones in your knees breaks down, leaving you more vulnerable to knee pain.
Heat therapy to manage the pain
Traditionally, while most knee pain could be managed with medication and home remedies, today, with the realisation that these are not viable solutions, a new trend that’s catching on among patients is heat therapy— such as wireless heating pads, which are preferred over hot water bottles or electric pads, chiefly because of their safety aspect and their ability to be used on the move—for soothing stiff joints and tired muscles. In fact, in a study of 371 people suffering from acute knee pain, heat therapy relieved pain and muscle stiffness, and improved flexibility significantly better than painkillers, such as ibuprofen or paracetamol.
So, what exactly is heat therapy?
Heat therapy, as the name suggests, is the use of heat in treatment. Applying heat to an area increases the blood flow, bringing along proteins and oxygen.
Can you treat all kinds of pain with it?
Heat is primarily for relaxation, comfort, and reassurance and can be used to relieve pain caused by chronic conditions of the muscles and joints, such as:
- Acute soreness from over-exertion, old strains or sprains.
- Stiffness and pain in specific areas related to osteoarthritis, muscle knots” or trigger points, and most kinds of cramping/spasm.
- Aches all over the body, pain and sensitivity. There are many kinds, but primarily, fibromyalgia, the rheumatic diseases, drug side effects, vitamin D deficiency, and sleep deprivation.
- Muscle spasms and stiffness.
As heat has a pain-relieving effect when applied to the skin, it can be used for other chronic pain conditions as well. In case of injuries, heat is best for injuries or conditions that are not in the acute phase. So, don’t use heat on a fresh injury, or on irritated skin or open wounds.
How does heat therapy work?
Studies show that heat therapy increases blood flow, raises the temperature of deep tissues and makes muscles more flexible. When blood flow is increased, more nutrients and oxygen can reach the injured area, helping it heal. Functional brain-imaging research has shown that applied heat activates certain parts of the brain, which may alleviate the sensation of pain.
What kind of heat therapy works best: Discussing different sources
When heat is applied to the skin, it causes more blood to flow to the area where it is applied. Heat affects the skin, as well as the underlying tissues below the skin. How deeply these effects travel depends on what type of heat is used for treatment. For instance, a hot water bottle might not generate enough heat to manage the pain, and an electric heating pad may only target the “shallow” tissues, which are directly below the skin.
Heat therapy using plastic hot water bottles or thick rubber ones, although still the most convenient, is slowly weaning in popularity. Here’s why:
- According to a report, every year, up to 200 people are admitted to hospital because of serious burns from hot water, either while filling the bottle or because of leaks and bursts.
- Burns are also caused when a hot water bottle is left on one part of the body for too long. These burns can occur gradually without you even knowing.
- In case of a plastic water bottle, the heat does not last for more than 10 minutes, thus proving ineffective to manage pain.
Another method of using heat therapy is via the electric heating pad. Although this is catching on, it comes with its own share of cons:
- You can’t use it immediately after charging because it is too hot. It usually takes about 5-10 minutes after the pad becomes warm to begin applying it directly to the affected area.
- Another disadvantage when it comes to electric heating pads is the safety aspect—electric burns and short circuits are not uncommon.
- These are not recommended for older people.
How hot is too hot?
Experts suggest that in order for heat therapy to be effective, it should be at a temperature between 45 and 60 degrees Celsius for no longer that 30-60 minutes, with anything above 70 degrees Celsius being reported as “uncomfortable” and “damaging”.
A recent innovation, the Sandpuppy Strappr, works best because it is specifically designed to manage knee pain. Moreover, it is portable, which means you can use it on the move while you get your work done. Its soft, Velcro fabric ensures it is comfortable, while the inbuilt cut-offs guarantee it is extremely safe. Using the belt three-four times a week for 20-minute intervals, gives you relief for up to two-four hours.
Most older women, especially those with a higher body mass index, complain about knee pain caused by a weakened bone structure that occurs during the aging process. Knee pain can limit function and activity levels, diminishing their quality of life. But does it have to be this way? Why should knee pain stop you from doing the things you enjoy and living the life you’ve always wanted to?
Try managing your pain using heat treatment. Give the home remedies a rest, press pause on the painkillers and give heat therapy that’s safe and effective a shot.