Do heat creams actually work?

Heat creams (like Dencorub, Deep Heat and natural alternatives) were massively popular back in the 1970s and 1980s. It was the fragrance of choice for every sporting hack, athlete and “jogger”.

Since those glory days, heat creams have slowly faded into a memory of how the older generation did things.

But was there any merit in the approach? Can heat creams offer anything more than a warm feeling and “that” smell?

The surprising thing about heat creams isn’t how effective they are but how they work! Hint: it’s got nothing to do with the claims on the packet…

Let’s cover the effects of heat creams first, then when (and whether) they work.

Chemical effect of heat creams

Most heat creams contain an active ingredient which irritates the skin. It changes the sensation perceived in the area based on how the nerves react to the irritation.

That’s it, nice and simple.

Heat creams can’t warm up muscles or get blood flowing to muscles – they’re way too deep to be affected. So the feeling of warming up is very different from actually warming up.

Mental effect of heat creams

OK, so there’s this concept that if you smell like an athlete…. just kidding, the smell isn’t the key.

The heating effect has two main impacts on the mental aspect of physical performance.

Firstly, it makes the area feel like it’s warmed up – and that’s not a good thing. As mentioned above, the heating effect doesn’t do anything for blood flow to muscles or to actually warm up muscles and tendons. This can leave athletes more vulnerable to injury if they skip or shorten their warm up because they believe that the heat cream has helped.

Secondly, it gives a burning sensation across the area. This can be surprisingly helpful for specific conditions.

Some conditions worsen due to the effect of pain and the brain’s response to that pain.

Let’s take ITB syndrome, aka Runner’s Knee. You’re running along happy, then you feel a little pain across the outside of your knee. That pain starts a mental response called fear avoidance, where the brain makes the leg go weak on landing to avoid the pain. But as the leg lands, that fear causes the leg to rotate inwards faster and generate more knee pain. And so the cycle repeats and worsens…

If you can disrupt that cycle of pain, avoidance and more pain, you can stop ITB pain from rapidly spiralling out of control during a run. And that’s where heat creams can actually work wonders!

Performance benefits of heat creams

Any cream or gel that provides a sensation can help distract the brain from other inputs, like pain and soreness.

The improvements in performance that you might get after using a heating or cooling cream relate directly to this effect, nothing more.

In the example above about ITB pain, if you can dampen the knee pain by hiding it behind a burning sensation, the brain is less inclined to avoid the pain (as it feels less intense) and you can stop the cycle of pain and fear avoidance from killing your run. And because there’s no structural damage in ITB pain, you can safely push on without increased injury risk.

As another example, if you’re feeling calf tightness during a run and are inclined to back off your pace to adjust, heat creams can hide that sensation and reduce the need to adjust your pace. However…

In that example, you can see how the calf tightness may be warning you about a risky situation or brewing injury. Blocking out that sensation may make you faster but it also might get you injured.

Are heat creams effective?

The short answer is yes but only in specific circumstances.

Based on the above examples, heat creams can be effective if you fit each of these criteria:

  • Pain, soreness or tightness that changes the way you move, worsening the pain,
  • No structural damage involved in the injury, and
  • Adequate warm up completed as part of your training session (not relying on heat creams to warm you up)

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