Heat transfer to deep tissue: the effect of body fat and heating modality

J Med Eng Technol. 2009;33(5):337-48. doi: 10.1080/03091900802069547.


The purpose of this study was to quantify the thermal transfer characteristics of the skin in relation to body composition as assessed by the ability of water immersion and hot and cold packs with different thicknesses of towels layers to heat or cool deep tissue. Two sets of experiments were conducted to determine the interrelationships between body fat content and muscle temperature after immersion of the limb in water or the application of hot and cold packs. In the first series of experiments, subjects immersed their lower body in water at 42, 37, 34, 27, 24 and 0 degrees C for 20 minutes. Muscle temperature was measured in the skin above and in the belly of the quadriceps and medial gastrocnemius muscles by a thermistor on the skin and one implanted with a 20-gauge needle 25 mm below and perpendicular to the skin. To see the effect of circulation, a series was conducted with the circulation occluded. In the second series, hot or cold packs were used with different thicknesses of towel layers. The muscle temperature after immersion in water approached that of the packs within approximately 20 minutes. In contrast, when hot and cold packs were used with various thickness of towels ranging from 2 to 10 mm in thickness, the change in muscle temperature was much less and it was still changing at the end of a 20 minute period. Subjects with high body fat changed their deep tissue temperatures much more slowly with a time constant nearly double that of the thin subjects with all modalities. Even after water immersion, if the body fat exceeded 25% of the subject's weight, 20 min of immersion was not enough to either warm the muscle or cool it down substantially. Cold packs and hot packs were very ineffective in changing muscle temperature under these same conditions. Body fat plays a major role, as did limb blood flow in controlling the movement of heat across the limb.

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / physiology*
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Blood Circulation
  • Body Temperature / physiology
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Immersion
  • Male
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Quadriceps Muscle / physiology
  • Skin Temperature / physiology
  • Somatotypes / physiology*
  • Temperature
  • Time Factors