Someone once asked me what I thought was the greatest and most enduring medical therapy of all time. I told him that the answer, hands down, has to be heat. No, it's not some great medical advancement. It's simple and inexpensive, and it's as old as time--but it works, and that's what really matters.
When you concentrate heat on an area where you're experiencing pain, inflammation, spasm, blockage, skin infection, wart, itch, or whatever, the heat draws the body's defenses to that area. The results can be remarkable.
I've seen waxy bumps on the skin disappear within a few days if you apply hot compresses every four to six hours. And menstrual cramps usually go away, at least partially, if you apply heat to the lower abdomen. It's true that it won't work on everything and, in fact, it will make some things worse--like psoriasis and acute sprains. (For sprains, use ice packs for the first six hours and then switch to hot compresses.)
There's nothing better for skin infections than hot compresses. Even macular degeneration, cataracts, and eye infections have been known to respond to this treatment because of the increased circulation to that area of the body.
Here's an easy way to "see for yourself" just how much heat can increase your circulation: Read some small print (like the legalese in an advertisement) and then put your palms over your eyes with light pressure. Keep them there for 15 minutes and then open your eyes and read the small print again. You'll be amazed at how much sharper your vision is.
A modern twist on a therapy as old as time
Even though the therapy itself is ancient, you'd have to expect that modern man would come up with ways to make this therapy even easier. Playtex and Procter & Gamble sell self-adhesive pads that warm up on contact with your skin. You apply them anywhere on your body, just like a big Band-Aid, and the heat lasts for hours. They're a variation of an old, amazingly simple Chinese formula consisting of iron, charcoal, table salt, and water, which reacts with human skin to release heat. Playtex calls theirs "Heat Therapy" and P&G calls theirs "ThermaCare."
But if you want--or need--something even more powerful than hot compresses, I'd recommend looking into a therapy called moxibustion. This twist on hot compresses is a highly specialized form of heat application at acupuncture points. Clinical studies have proven that moxibustion is effective for all sorts of conditions, from muscle pain to colitis.
In one study, researchers divided 46 ulcerative colitis patients into two groups. One group of 30 people was treated with moxibustion, and another 16 people were treated with the conventional drug salicylate fapyridine. More than half of the people in the moxibustion group were completely cured and another 12 showed significant improvement. Only one person didn't benefit from this therapy. On the other hand, only five people in the salicylate fapyridine group were cured. The researchers concluded that moxibustion is superior to the conventional drug treatment.
Another study showed that moxibustion can also prevent arthritis and inhibit the progression of existing cases.
I should warn you, though--moxibustion does look a little weird in practice. It involves burning either a cigar-like stick or a small cone made of an herb called mugwort over various acupuncture points (depending on what you're being treated for). But regardless of how "out there" it looks, all the studies suggest that it really works.
Here's what to do: Moxibustion itself doesn't require a license, but anyone who practices it must have an acupuncture license, so the two therapies are almost always done together. If you know of a practitioner in your area who uses acupuncture in his practice, check to see if he also does moxibustion. If you don't know of any acupuncture practitioners near you, contact the American Association of Oriental Medicine by calling (866)455-7999 or go to www.aaom.org.
If moxibustion is a bit too much for you, check your local pharmacy for the self-adhesive hot compresses. They'll run you about $7-$10--not too bad for the greatest medical therapy of all time. And, of course, if you want a re-usable version, there's always the old standby: the electric heating pad.
Please don't misunderstand me about the power of hot compresses. While they're often great pain-relief tools, they're not a cure-all. If the pain doesn't subside in 15 minutes--or if it gets worse--forget the hot compress and see a doctor.