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Rehabilitative Measures for Treatment of Pain and Inflammation


Zacharia Isaac

, MD, Brigham and Women's Hospital

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2023
Topic Resources

Treatment of pain and inflammation aims to facilitate movement and improve coordination of muscles and joints. Nonpharmacologic treatments include therapeutic exercise, heat, cold, electrical stimulation, cervical traction, massage Massage Therapy In massage therapy (a manipulative and body-based practice), body tissues are manipulated to reduce pain, relieve muscle tension, and reduce stress. The therapeutic value of massage for many... read more , and acupuncture Acupuncture Acupuncture, a therapy within traditional Chinese medicine, is one of the most widely accepted components of integrative therapies in the western world. Specific points on the body are stimulated... read more . These treatments are used for many disorders of muscles, tendons, and ligaments (see table ). The use of these modalities is based on patient and clinician preferences and clinical judgment. These modalities are typically adjunctive rather than a sole intervention. They are often used before and after exercise therapy and are components of the rehabilitation strategy. Prescribers should include the following:

  • Diagnosis

  • Type of treatment (eg, ultrasound, hot pack)

  • Location of application (eg, right shoulder, low back)

  • Frequency (eg, once/day, every other day)

  • Duration (eg, 10 days, 1 week)



Heat provides temporary relief in subacute and chronic traumatic and inflammatory disorders (eg, sprains, strains, fibrositis, tenosynovitis, muscle spasm, myositis, back pain, whiplash injuries, various forms of arthritis, arthralgia, neuralgia). Heat increases blood flow and the extensibility of connective tissue; heat also decreases joint stiffness, pain, and muscle spasm and helps relieve inflammation, edema, and exudates. Heat application may be superficial (infrared heat, hot packs, paraffin bath, hydrotherapy) or deep (ultrasound). Intensity and duration of the physiologic effects depend mainly on tissue temperature, rate of temperature elevation, and area treated.

Infrared heat is applied with a heat lamp, usually for 20 minutes/day. Contraindications include implanted metal device and impaired skin sensation (particularly to temperature and pain). Precautions must be taken to avoid burns.

Hot packs are cotton cloth containers filled with silicate gel; they are boiled in water or warmed in a microwave oven, then applied to the skin. The packs must not be too hot. Wrapping the packs in several layers of towels helps protect the skin from burns. Contraindications are the same as those for infrared heat.

For a paraffin bath, the affected area is dipped in, immersed in, or painted with melted wax that has been heated to 49° C. The heat can be retained by wrapping the affected area with towels for 20 minutes. Paraffin is usually applied to small joints—typically, by dipping or immersion for a hand and by painting for a knee or an elbow. Paraffin should not be applied to open wounds or used on patients allergic to it. A paraffin bath is particularly useful for hand osteoarthritis.

Hydrotherapy may be used to enhance wound healing. Agitated warm water stimulates blood flow and debrides burns and wounds. This treatment is often given in a Hubbard tank (a large industrial whirlpool) with water heated to 35.5 to 37.7° C. Total immersion in water heated to 37.7 to 40° C may also help relax muscles and relieve pain. Hydrotherapy is particularly useful with range-of-motion exercises.

Diathermy is therapeutic heating of tissues using oscillating high-frequency electromagnetic fields, either short-wave or microwave. These modalities do not seem superior to simpler forms of heating and are now seldom used.

Low-level laser therapy

Low-level laser therapy (also known as cold laser) applies light energy to deeper tissues and may provide analgesia for a variety of conditions, including sprains, strains, neck and back pain, shoulder pain, and fibromyalgia. It should not be used over the eyes, and appropriate safety eyewear is required. It should also not be used at the site of known malignancy, over a developing fetus, over a pacemaker or other implanted device, or over the thyroid gland. Low-level laser therapy can also trigger a seizure in patients with photosensitive epilepsy and should be used with caution in such patients. Although some evidence suggests potential benefit of low-level laser therapy for specific musculoskeletal conditions, the results are mixed depending on the specific condition being treated and the treatment comparisons.


Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to penetrate deep (4 to 10 cm) into the tissue; its effects are thermal, mechanical, chemical, and biologic. It is indicated for tendinitis, bursitis, contractures, osteoarthritis, bone injuries, and complex regional pain syndrome Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is chronic neuropathic pain that follows soft-tissue or bone injury (type I) or nerve injury (type II) and lasts longer and is more severe than expected... read more . Ultrasound should not be applied to ischemic tissue, anesthetized areas, or areas of acute infection nor be used to treat hemorrhagic diathesis or cancer. Also, it should not be applied over the eyes, brain, spinal cord, ears, heart, reproductive organs, brachial plexus, or bones that are healing.


The choice between heat and cold therapies is often empiric. When heat does not work, cold is applied. However, for acute injury or pain, cold seems to be better than heat. Cold may help relieve muscle spasm, myofascial or traumatic pain, low back pain, and acute inflammation; cold may also help induce some local anesthesia. Cold is usually used during the first few hours or the day after an injury; consequently, it is seldom used in physical therapy.

Cold may be applied locally using an ice bag, a cold pack, or volatile fluids (eg, ethyl chloride, vapocoolant spray), which cool by evaporation. Spread of cold on the skin depends on the thickness of the epidermis, underlying fat and muscle, water content of the tissue, and rate of blood flow. Care must be taken to avoid tissue damage and hypothermia. Cold should not be applied over poorly perfused areas.

Electrical stimulation

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses low current at low-frequency oscillation to relieve pain. Patients feel a gentle tingling sensation without increased muscle tension. Depending on the severity of pain, 20 minutes to a few hours of stimulation may be applied several times daily. Often, patients are taught to use the TENS device and decide when to apply treatment. TENS therapy should not be applied over or close to the area where an electronic device is implanted, because TENS could cause such a device to malfunction. It should not be applied over the eyes.

Cervical traction

Cervical traction is often indicated for chronic neck pain due to cervical spondylosis Cervical Spondylosis and Spondylotic Cervical Myelopathy Cervical spondylosis is osteoarthritis of the cervical spine causing stenosis of the canal and sometimes cervical myelopathy due to encroachment of bony osteoarthritic growths (osteophytes)... read more , cervical radiculopathy, whiplash injuries, or torticollis Cervical Dystonia Cervical dystonia is characterized by involuntary tonic contractions or intermittent spasms of neck muscles. The cause is usually unknown. Diagnosis is clinical. Treatment can include physical... read more . Vertical traction (with patients in a sitting position) is more effective than horizontal traction (with patients lying in bed). For both motorized intermittent rhythmic traction and static traction, the amount of weight used varies, but generally should provide a gentle stretch to the neck muscles but not cause pain. Generally, hyperextension of the neck should be avoided because it may increase nerve root compression in the intervertebral foramina. Traction is usually combined with other physical therapy, including exercises and manual stretching. Traction is generally avoided in patients with longstanding rheumatoid arthritis or other inflammatory arthropathies involving the cervical spine.


Massage Massage Therapy In massage therapy (a manipulative and body-based practice), body tissues are manipulated to reduce pain, relieve muscle tension, and reduce stress. The therapeutic value of massage for many... read more may mobilize contracted tissues, relieve pain, and reduce swelling and induration associated with trauma (eg, fracture, joint injury, sprain, strain, bruise). Massage should be considered for low back pain, fibromyalgia Fibromyalgia Fibromyalgia is a common, incompletely understood nonarticular, noninflammatory disorder characterized by generalized aching (sometimes severe); widespread tenderness of muscles, areas around... read more , hemiplegia, myofascial pain, cerebral palsy Cerebral Palsy (CP) Cerebral palsy refers to a group of nonprogressive conditions characterized by impaired voluntary movement or posture and resulting from prenatal developmental malformations or perinatal or... read more , and amputation. Massage should not be used to treat infections or thrombophlebitis. Only a licensed or certified massage therapist should use massage for treatment of an injury because of variability in therapists’ training and skills.


Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Gebauers Ethyl Chloride
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: View Consumer Version
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