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Muscle spasms, joint pain, and stiffness in your back can limit mobility and interfere with physical activities. While medication can be effective at knocking out inflammation, heat therapy also works for back pain.
This type of therapy isn’t anything new. In fact, its history dates to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians who used the sun’s rays as therapy. The Chinese and Japanese would even use hot springs as therapy for pain.
Today, you don’t have to head outdoors for relief. Heating pads have made it easier and convenient to use heat therapy. Here’s a look at some benefits of heat therapy for back pain.
Heat therapy is an effective remedy for back pain because it boosts circulation, which then allows nutrients and oxygen to travel to joints and muscles. This circulation helps repair damaged muscles, relieves inflammation, and improves back stiffness.
Any type of heat therapy can help relieve back pain. Yet, heating pads are ideal because they’re convenient and portable. They’re also electric, so you can use them anywhere in your home, such as lying in bed or sitting on the couch.
Hot or warm baths provide moist heat, which also promote circulation and reduce muscle pain and stiffness. A bath might work better if you have pain or stiffness in other parts of your body, too.
The problem with baths, though, is that it’s difficult to maintain the water temperature. That water will slowly cool down.
On the other hand, heating pads have adjustable levels and provide a continuous flow of heat — for as long as the pad is turned on.
If you don’t have a heating pad, taking a warm shower or relaxing in a hot tub may also relieve back pain and stiffness. One benefit of a hot tub and shower over a bath is continuous heat similar to a heating pad.
Electric heating pads can get hot quickly and injure the skin, so it’s important to use them correctly.
Always start on the lowest setting
To start, set the heating pad on the lowest setting. For minor aches and pain, a low setting might be more than enough to reduce pain and stiffness. You can gradually increase the intensity of heat, if needed.
There are no hard or fast rules regarding how long to use a heating pad on your back. It all depends on the level of pain and your tolerance to heat. Even so, if you use a heating pad on a high setting, remove after 15 to 30 minutes to avoid burns.
On a low setting, you can use the heating pad for a longer period, maybe up to one hour.
Use caution if you’re pregnant
If you’re pregnant and have back pain, it’s safe to use a heating pad. You should avoid prolonged exposure since overheating can be dangerous to a fetus. It can lead to neural tube defects or other complications.
This is more probable in a hot tub or sauna, but err on the side of caution. Use a heating pad on the lowest setting while pregnant, and only for about 10 to 15 minutes.
Since heating pads decrease pain signals and increase circulation, use the pad soon after developing painful flares or stiffness to speed the healing process.
Types of heating pads
Different heating pads are available for back pain. This includes a standard electric heating pad that offers multiple heat settings.
There’s also the option of an infrared heating pad. This is helpful for moderate to severe pain since the heat penetrates deeper into the muscles.
When shopping for a heating pad, look for one that has an automatic shut-off feature to prevent overheating and burns, in case you fall asleep on the pad.
You can find electric heat pads at your local pharmacy or shop for one online.
If you don’t have a heating pad on hand, you can use a heat wrap or heated gel pack underneath your clothes.
Before using a gel pack, place it in the microwave for about 1 to 2 minutes (follow package instructions), and then apply to a sore back. You can also use certain gel packs for cold therapy.
You can find heat wraps and gel packs at your local pharmacy or shop for them online.
Heating pads are effective for pain management, but they can be dangerous when used improperly. Here are a few safety tips to avoid injury.
- Don’t place a heating pad or heated gel pack directly on your skin. Wrap it in a towel before applying to skin to avoid burns.
- Don’t fall asleep using a heating pad.
- When using a heating pad, start on the lowest level and slowly increase the heat intensity.
- Don’t use a heating pad that has a cracked or broken electrical cord.
- Don’t apply a heating pad to damaged skin.
If you don’t have a heating pad, you can make your own using items already in your house.
For this to work, you need an old cotton sock, regular rice, and a sewing machine, or a needle and thread.
Fill the old sock with rice, leaving just enough space at the top of the sock to sew the ends together. Next, put the sock in the microwave for about 3 to 5 minutes.
Once the microwave stops, carefully remove the sock and apply it to your back. If the sock is too hot, let it cool or wrap it in a cloth before using.
You can also use the rice sock as a cold pack. Just put it in the freezer before applying to acute injuries.
Keep in mind that heat isn’t recommended for every type of back pain. It can relieve chronic pain and stiffness, such as those associated with arthritis and other muscle or joint ailments.
However, if your back injury is recent, cold therapy is more effective because it restricts blood vessels and reduces swelling, which can dull pain.
Use cold therapy for the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury, and then switch to heat therapy to stimulate blood flow and healing.
A sore, stiff back makes it difficult to do just about everything from exercising to working. Heat therapy might be the secret to reducing inflammation and stiffness.
If you don’t have a heating pad, consider a hot shower, bath, or a homemade heating pad. These can provide the results you need to get moving again.