pregnant woman with back pain

The relief that a simple heating pad can bring to various aches and pains in the body is wonderful. But what if you’re pregnant?

Can a sore back, aching joints, or muscle spasms in your abdomen be safely comforted with a heating pad, or is it dangerous for your baby-to-be?

It’s a good question. After all, pregnant women are advised to avoid prolonged exposure to hot tubs and saunas. An increase in core body temperature can increase the risks of certain birth defects and miscarriage.

Here’s what you should know about the use of heating pads during pregnancy.

What is a heating pad used for during pregnancy?

Using heat or ice packs are common methods of treating muscle and join pain. Both methods are noninvasive and not addictive. In general, recurring pain like the aching back, hips, or joints you may experience as your pregnancy progresses should be treated with heat.

Heat therapy opens blood vessels, increasing blood flow and bringing fresh supplies of oxygen and nutrients. This helps reduce joint pain and eases soreness in muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The warmth from a heat pack can also increase your range of motion while decreasing muscle spasms. Overall, it’s a good way to find pain relief during pregnancy.

Twinges and aches go hand-in-hand with pregnancy. According to the American Pregnancy Association, nearly every woman should expect some degree of back pain during her pregnancy.

You may experience back and pelvic pain during pregnancy for the following reasons:

  • Rising hormone levels: Your body prepares for delivery with the release of hormones that help your ligaments soften and your joints loosen. As a result, your back may not be as well-supported. That can be uncomfortable and/or painful.
  • Shifting center of gravity: As your uterus expands to accommodate your growing baby, your center of gravity changes. Your posture may follow suit.
  • Increased weight: As the numbers on the scale tick upward, your back has more weight to support.
  • Compromised posture: Adjusting to your new shape can lead to poor posture. Things like sitting or standing for too long, or even bending over, can worsen a sore back and hips.

Muscle cramps are another symptom of pregnancy for some women. These involuntary muscle spasms come on quickly and can be painful.

Close to half of all pregnant women will experience muscle cramps at some point. While most of them happen in the legs, they can also occur in the back, abdomen, and even in the hands and feet.

Is a heating pad safe during pregnancy?

A heating pad is a good option for temporary relief if you’re dealing with pain in your back or pelvis, or if you experience muscle cramps. Unlike a hot tub or a sauna, using a heating pad on isolated parts of your body won’t raise your core body temperature.

For pain relief, you could also try an electric heating pad or a microwaveable heat pack. Follow these guidelines when using a heating pad during pregnancy:

  • Don’t apply a heating device directly to your skin. It’s best to wrap it in a thin towel first, or use it over your clothing.
  • Don’t apply heat for longer than 20 minutes, which is the normal cycle length of most heating pads.
  • If your heating pad has temperature settings, use the lowest setting that still makes you feel better.
  • Avoid falling asleep with your heating pad.

Speak to your doctor if you have questions or concerns about the safety of a specific heating pad or microwaveable heat pack.

Is it safe to use a heating pad on my pregnant belly?

While using a heating pad to temporarily relive pain in your joints, hips, and back isn’t a problem during pregnancy, avoid using one on your abdomen. There can be many causes of abdominal pain while you’re pregnant, including round ligament pain, gas and bloating, and constipation. In some case, abdominal pain can be a symptom of a more serious condition.

You should consult your doctor right away if you experience discomfort or outright pain in your abdomen along with any of these symptoms:

  • spotting or bleeding
  • fever
  • chills
  • vaginal discharge
  • feelings of lightheadedness
  • pain or discomfort while urinating
  • nausea and vomiting

Instead of using a heating pad, try treating minor abdominal discomfort by soaking in a warm bath or changing positions. For example, sit if you were standing or recline if you were seated.

Next steps

It’s fine to use a heating pad to find relief from pregnancy-related aches and pains in your back, hips, and joints. But avoid using it for longer than 20 minutes. Start with the lowest setting, and make sure you don’t fall asleep with it. You can also try a microwaveable heat pack or a hot water bottle.

Avoid using heating devices on your abdomen. While it’s normal to experience some abdominal discomfort, be aware of warning signs of a problem.

Always contact your doctor if you have questions or concerns about the use of heating pads during your pregnancy.

You asked, we answered

  • What are some other safe remedies for aches and pains during pregnancy?
  • For symptom relief of most aches and pains of pregnancy, you can usually start simply with rest. Getting off your feet is a good way to start. A warm bath usually soothes aching muscles and back pain. Simple stretches or even uncomplicated yoga can also help. Muscle rubs and massages (if not too vigorous) may be helpful for specific areas of concern. Staying active is very helpful in pregnancy, but not overdoing is the key. Lastly, acetaminophen (Tylenol) is considered very safe to use during pregnancy if taken as directed, if these other measures don’t improve symptoms. 

    - Michael Weber, MD
Jessica