Thermotherapy, also known as heat therapy, refers to the use of warm compresses and pads to treat joint pain and other conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system. Heat therapy is the easiest way to experience relief and address joint pain caused by injuries, arthritis, and other factors in the comfort of your home. This type of pain relief treatment is also recommended for people with lower back pain. Is heat therapy for lower back pain really effective? We aimed to find out.
Is a heating pad good for lower back pain?
Heating pads belong to the group of the most and easiest sources of relief for a sore neck, back, or pain in other parts of your body. While the efficacy of thermotherapy was a subject of many studies, none of them focused on this treatment option alone. As you can guess, most studies inspected both cryotherapy (cold therapy) and thermotherapy and whether they can relieve pain successfully.
A study from the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research found that both cryo- and thermotherapy can relieve acute lower back pain, especially when used in conjunction with pharmacologic treatment. The research also showed that benefits of thermotherapy are long-term and found that the use of heat for lower back pain relief is also effective for pregnant women who deal with this common occurrence in the first and second trimesters.
Although the use of heat is an effective pain relief method, you should avoid using these pads on infections or fresh injuries. What is a fresh injury? Any time a tissue suffers physical damage, it becomes inflamed, and this fresh injury shouldn’t be treated with heat because it would only aggravate the pain. You should avoid using heat in the lower back, or any other area, if the affected part of your body is sensitive to the touch, the skin is hot and red, and if there is swelling.
What does a heating pad do for lower back pain?
Okay, the effectiveness of heating pad for lower back pain was confirmed in scientific researches, but how does it help? The use of heat increases the flexibility of the soft tissue, muscle resistance, improves contraction of smooth muscles, and it improves the motor function of muscles in the affected area.
Heat therapy triggers a decline in pain, particularly in the low back area, by inhibiting pain signals and exerting pressure on back muscles. This pain relief method works by improving circulation and blood flow to your lower back area, or any other part of the body where you feel pain. Increasing the temperature in the painful area soothes discomfort and increases your range of motion, thus making it easier for you to perform some everyday tasks.
You can use heat therapy to address different problems that cause pain in the lower back area, including acute soreness from over-exertion. It is particularly beneficial for stiffness that would otherwise worsen your pain. In most cases, stiffness is caused by prolonged sitting or standing. Once you try to move, you feel like your lower back is stiff and find it difficult to move properly.
Heat therapy can also take care of muscle spasms that create uncomfortable sensations and discomfort. Several mechanisms are involved in heat therapy and its potential to relieve back pain. First, it dilates blood vessels of the muscles that surround the lumbar spine, which leads to improved blood flow. And second, heat stimulates sensory receptors in your skin to decrease the transmission of pain signals. In addition, due to the ability of heat to stretch soft tissues, you get to eliminate the above-mentioned stiffness.
Types of heat therapy
When it comes to heat therapy for lower back pain, we have two types to choose from:
Conducted heat therapy or dry heat
Involves the use of heating pads, saunas, and dry heating packs. This is the easiest way to use heat therapy to eliminate lower back pain
Convection heat or moist heat therapy
Revolves around the use of moist heating packs, steamed towels, and hot baths with the purpose to decrease stiffness and reduce pain intensity. Moisture aids the heat to penetrate into the muscles more effectively
It would be difficult to declare one type of heat therapy is better than the other. The reason is simple; the choice of therapy depends on a patient’s needs and preferences. What you find more effective or practical may not work that well for someone else. Some people find dry heat more practical and easier to apply, while others say they benefit more from moist heat for lower back pain relief.
How to apply heat therapy on the back?
Today, you can find and purchase heating pads and eliminate pain easily. You can also make a heating pad on your own. In order to do so, you just need to get two towels and squeeze out excess water until they’re only damp. Put one towel in a Ziploc bag but leave the bag open. Place the bag into the microwave and heat on high for two minutes. Remove the bag from the microwave and seal the bag and wrap another wet towel around it. Then, apply it onto the lower back for 20 minutes.
There are many other ways to use heat to decrease pain in the low back. For example:
- Electric heating pad – you just plug it in, and the pad maintains a constant level of heat
- Heat wraps – you can wear them under your clothes to feel the heat in the low back for hours
- Heated gel packs – you either have to heat them in a microwave or in hot water
- Hot water bottle – usually stays warm for 20 to 30 minutes
- Steam bath, hot bath, sauna, hot tub – provide relaxation and stimulate a general feeling of comfort
- Warm gels – you just apply them on the affected area and feel the heat instantly
Heat therapy for lower back pain is an effective way to increase flexibility and eliminate stiffness. You can apply heat to the affected area in many ways starting from heating pads to warm gels and hot water bottles. Avoid applying heat to wounds and skin infections.