18 May 2009 04:00 pm

Heat Therapy to the Rescue

Compared to most therapies heat is pretty hard to beat. It’s very inexpensive, it’s easy to do, it doesn’t require an appointment and it carries no side affects. You can do it while relaxing at home and there are even portable heat wraps you can use in the car or at work.

Physical therapists will often combine heat therapy with other treatment modalities, such as ice therapy, electro therapy, stretching and exercise. Heat therapy is highly effective for anyone looking for a non-pharmaceutical form of back pain relief.

Choosing the Right Product for You

Appling heat therapy starts with getting the right heat source. You want something that can hold a constant temperature for an extended period of time. Nothing is worse than having your hot pad go cold half way through the session.

An adjustable thermostat is also handy for setting just the right temperature and taking the guesswork out of the process.

Your hot pad just needs to feel warm. It isn’t necessary to have the thing so hot that you risk burning your skin.

Secondly, you need heat that will penetrate deeply into the muscles. Heat sources – such as creams and sprays – that just warm up the skin will do little to relieve that back or neck pain.

Which is Best, Moist Heat Or Dry Heat?

Dry heat such as you get from electric heating pads is far easier to apply to the lower back and neck than say a sloppy wet towel for the simple fact that you don’t have to worry about getting your clothes wet. Plus, electric heating pads are adjustable and will remain at a constant temperature for as long as they’re plugged in.,/p>

Towels lose heat rapidly and have to be constantly changed.

Moist heat tends to penetrate better because the water molds to the body and thus, provides better heat transfer. This leads some people to conclude that moist heat provides more pain relief than dry, but this is really a matter of perception rather than fact. If you have access to a hot tub or whirlpool bath then moist heat becomes a little more convenient plus the additional massage feature is a nice bonus.

Actually deciding between moist heat verses dry heat doesn’t really matter. Both are equally effective. What it really comes down to is a matter of personal preference and practicality.

Heat Therapy Options

You have a number of options for applying heat therapy to your aching back or neck some of which we’ve already discussed.

There is the old-fashioned hot water bottle, which will stay warm for up to 30 minutes but it isn’t adjustable, doesn’t maintain a constant temperature and has to be refilled if you need it to go longer.

Then there’s my favorite – the electric heating pad – which comes with an adjustable thermostat, maintains a constant temperature and can be applied anywhere, anytime with no muss and no fuss.

Next are the moist heat options such as the hot tub, sauna, steam baths or even a good old hot bath… all very effective and definitely enjoyable… but not as convenient as the above options in my opinion.

Finally, you have the newer high tech toys like heat wraps and gel packs that you can heat in the microwave or in hot water. These are fine products and definitely do the job, but they can be expensive and don’t really match the electric heating pad for convenience. (Can you tell I’ve already made my choice?)

How Long To Apply Heat

If you’re like me, the longer you can spend relaxing the better. But sometimes that just isn’t possible.

Generally speaking, for minor back pain 15 to 20 minutes should be sufficient. For more severe pain – or in really stubborn cases – you may need to spend anywhere from 30 minutes to as long as 2 hours for the treatment to be effective.

How long you apply the heat will depend on the severity of the pain and how long it takes for you to experience relief. In other words, you’re going to have to experiment a little to find what works best for you.

Heat Therapy Precautions

Before we wrap up this discussion on using heat for back pain relief, there are some things you should keep in mind. Namely, that heat is not always appropriate for all situations.

For example, you should not apply heat to a new injury that might be swollen or bruised. The heat will simply cause additional swelling and ice would be a better solution. The accepted rule is to use ice for the first two days following an injury, after which you can then apply heat safely.

In addition, heat should not be used if you have the following conditions: Heart disease, high blood pressure, peripheral vascular disease, deep vein thrombosis, diabetes or dermatitis.

And, as with any form of treatment, always check with your doctor before attempting to handle the matter yourself. Chances are, he’ll give you the go ahead, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Right?

Heat May Just Be Neck Pain’s Nemesis

So, if you’re after a simple, easy to apply, natural form of back or neck pain relief, don’t overlook the benefits of heat therapy. Unlike the pharmaceutical options, heat therapy doesn’t just mask the pain. It actually works with your body to promote the healing process.

Till next time,


1. Press Release: Heat Halts Pain Inside The Body, University College London, July 5, 2006


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