Review article (meta-analysis)| Volume 94, ISSUE 1, P149-163, January 2013

Do Thermal Agents Affect Range of Movement and Mechanical Properties in Soft Tissues? A Systematic Review

Published:August 09, 2012DOI:



      To examine the effect of thermal agents on the range of movement (ROM) and mechanical properties in soft tissue and to discuss their clinical relevance.

      Data Sources

      Electronic databases (Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, MEDLINE, and EMBASE) were searched from their earliest available record up to May 2011 using Medical Subjects Headings and key words. We also undertook related articles searches and read reference lists of all incoming articles.

      Study Selection

      Studies involving human participants describing the effects of thermal interventions on ROM and/or mechanical properties in soft tissue. Two reviewers independently screened studies against eligibility criteria.

      Data Extraction

      Data were extracted independently by 2 review authors using a customized form. Methodologic quality was also assessed by 2 authors independently, using the Cochrane risk of bias tool.

      Data Synthesis

      Thirty-six studies, comprising a total of 1301 healthy participants, satisfied the inclusion criteria. There was a high risk of bias across all studies. Meta-analyses were not undertaken because of clinical heterogeneity; however, effect sizes were calculated. There were conflicting data on the effect of cold on joint ROM, accessory joint movement, and passive stiffness. There was limited evidence to determine whether acute cold applications enhance the effects of stretching, and further evidence is required. There was evidence that heat increases ROM, and a combination of heat and stretching is more effective than stretching alone.


      Heat is an effective adjunct to developmental and therapeutic stretching techniques and should be the treatment of choice for enhancing ROM in a clinical or sporting setting. The effects of heat or ice on other important mechanical properties (eg, passive stiffness) remain equivocal and should be the focus of future study.


      List of abbreviations:

      CI (confidence interval), CWI (cold water immersion), MD (mean difference), ROM (range of movement), US (ultrasound)
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