A hematoma is a collection of blood outside of a blood vessel. It occurs because of an injury to the wall of a blood vessel, allowing blood to seep out into surrounding tissues where it does not belong. Hematomas can occur anywhere in the body, though they are most common on the arms, legs, and head. The blood pools into the surrounding tissue, causing swelling and bruising. Small hematomas may heal on their own, but larger ones usually require some type of treatment to help drain the blood and reduce swelling. One home treatment option some people consider for a hematoma is using a heating pad. But does applying heat from a heating pad actually help speed up recovery from a hematoma? Below is an overview of hematomas and whether heating pads can aid the healing process.
What Causes a Hematoma?
A hematoma occurs when a blood vessel ruptures, allowing blood to seep out abnormally. There are several potential causes of ruptured blood vessels that can lead to a hematoma:
- Trauma – Any type of blunt force trauma, impact, or injury can cause blood vessels to burst. Common traumatic causes include falls, accidents, sports injuries, cuts, scrapes, bumps, and bruises.
- Surgery – Surgical procedures that involve working around blood vessels can lead to inadvertent damage and bleeding into surrounding tissues.
- Medications – Blood thinners and anticoagulants make people more prone to easy bleeding and hematoma development.
- Medical conditions – Certain medical problems like collagen vascular diseases and blood disorders can cause increased tendency for bleeding.
- Advanced age – Fragile blood vessels in older adults are more easily ruptured.
- Pregnancy – Changing hormones and increased blood volume in pregnant women increase risk of hematomas.
In most cases, an obvious traumatic injury causes the blood vessel damage that leads to a hematoma. However, they can also develop spontaneously without any clear precipitating event.
Signs and Symptoms
The most common signs and symptoms of a hematoma include:
- Swollen area – The tissue surrounding the hematoma swelling up as it fills with blood.
- Bruising – Bruising often develops as blood leaks into tissues.
- Pain – The area around the hematoma may be painful to touch.
- Skin discoloration – As blood pools under the skin, discoloration and redness develops.
- Difficulty moving – It may be hard to move the limb or body part affected by the hematoma.
- Warmth – The skin over the hematoma often feels warmer as blood flows into the area.
The size of the hematoma affects the severity of symptoms. Larger hematomas cause more significant swelling, pain, and loss of function. Small minor hematomas may only cause minimal bruising with mild symptoms. Hematomas that put pressure on nerves or compromise blood flow can cause more serious issues like numbness and impaired limb function.
Diagnosing a Hematoma
Doctors can usually diagnose a hematoma based on a physical exam of the injury site. They visually inspect and palpate the area for swelling, bruising, orFirm, swollen areas that are tender and warm to the touch are typical of a hematoma.
Sometimes imaging tests are done to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity:
- Ultrasound – This uses sound waves to detect blood pooled under the skin.
- CT scan – This detailed cross-sectional X-ray can pinpoint the location and size of a hematoma.
- MRI – An MRI provides clear images of soft tissues and can identify bleeding under the skin.
These imaging tests are more commonly used for severe hematomas or ones in delicate areas of the body. Small superficial hematomas are usually apparent just based on a physical examination.
Many minor hematomas resolve on their own with basic at-home treatment. More severe hematomas may require medical procedures to drain the blood. Treatment options include:
Resting the injured area avoids aggravating the bleeding from the ruptured blood vessel. This gives the hematoma time to heal and allow blood to reabsorb back into the body.
Applying ice to the area reduces swelling and pain. Icing should be done for 10-15 minutes several times per day. Ice cubes wrapped in a towel or an ice pack covered with a cloth protects the skin.
Gently wrapping an elastic bandage around the injured area compresses the hematoma to limit further bleeding and swelling. Wrapping should not be too tight as to restrict blood flow.
Keeping the injured limb elevated above heart level uses gravity to minimize blood pooling in the tissue. This is most helpful for hematomas in the arms and legs.
Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can alleviate discomfort associated with a hematoma.
For larger more severe hematomas, a needle and syringe can be used to aspirate or drain out pooled blood from under the skin. This is often done using ultrasound guidance for accuracy.
Surgery may be done to drain or remove large hematomas putting excessive pressure on tissues. This relieves symptoms and prevents tissue damage. Surgery may involve making an incision to remove clotted blood or completely removing damaged tissue.
Do Heating Pads Help Hematomas?
With an overview of what a hematoma is and how they are treated, the question remains of whether applying heat from a heating pad speeds up healing. Here is an overview of the rationale behind using heating pads and the potential benefits and risks.
The Rationale Behind Heating Pads
The main reason people consider using heating pads for hematomas is that warmth applied to an injury is thought to:
- Increase blood flow – Heat causes blood vessels to dilate and increases circulation.
- Reduce pain – Warmth has a soothing effect and decreases discomfort.
- Loosen muscles – Heat relaxes tight muscles and loosens stiffness.
- Improve healing – Increased blood flow brings oxygen and nutrients that aid repair.
Therefore, applying a heating pad to a hematoma may help improve blood flow, relax tissues, minimize pain, and speed up the body’s natural healing abilities. The warmth may help reabsorb blood and liquid from the injury site.
There are some potential benefits attributed to using a heating pad for a hematoma:
- May reduce pain and tenderness
- Can improve comfort
- Increases circulation to the area
- May help muscles relax
- May speed up reabsorption of blood
The warmth may provide symptom relief by addressing pain and swelling. Increased blood flow may hasten the healing process by clearing out blood and fluid faster.
Despite some possible benefits, there are also some risks associated with using heating pads for hematomas:
- Can increase bleeding – Heat causes blood vessels to dilate, which can worsen bleeding from an existing injury.
- May increase swelling – While heat may help clear out blood faster, it can also contribute to fluid build up and edema initially.
- Risk of burns – Heating pads can cause burns if applied improperly at too high of temperatures.
- Delayed healing – While increased blood flow may help, excess heat can impair the function of cells, proteins, and tissues involved in healing.
Therefore, heating pads need to be used cautiously for hematomas, as they may exacerbate swelling, bleeding, and skin injury. Close monitoring is required when applying heat to any recent injury prone to bleeding.
If using a heating pad for a hematoma, take these recommended precautions:
- Avoid applying heat directly to new or unhealed injuries
- Wait at least 48 hours after the initial trauma before considering heat
- Wrap heating pad in a towel to prevent direct skin contact and burns
- Start with low heat settings and increase temperature gradually
- Heat in 10-15 minute intervals with breaks in between applications
- Stop using the heating pad if swelling or pain increases
- See a doctor if the area shows signs of worsening or infection
Proper heating pad techniques minimize risks like exacerbated bleeding, burns, and swelling when treating a hematoma.
In summary, applying heat through a heating pad may offer some benefits when trying to heal a hematoma. The increased circulation can help clear out pooled blood, relax muscles, and speed up the body’s natural healing processes. However, there are also risks that using heat can worsen bleeding, swelling, and even lead to burns. When used cautiously following certain precautions, a heating pad may aid in recovery. But it is important not to use heat indiscriminately on acute injuries. Overall, a heating pad can be one option to help alleviate pain and symptoms associated with a hematoma when used properly. But allowing the hematoma time to heal through rest and compression may be the safest approach for most small-to-moderate hematomas.