Back pain is an extremely common condition that affects people of all ages and genders. Surprisingly, eighty percent of people will experience back pain at some point in their lifetime. Here’s another startling statistic. Over a three-month period, 39% of adults will experience back pain. That’s a significant portion of the population!
The struggle is real. Back pain makes it hard to function normally and challenging to concentrate on the rest of your life. Stretching and staying physically active with exercise that doesn’t aggravate the pain can help, but some people turn to heat wraps to help ease the pain and reduce back stiffness. How effective are heat wraps for providing relief when your back aches and does science support their benefits?
What Are Heat Wraps?
Heat wraps, also known as hot packs, are large tubes filled with gel shaped into a wrap that you heat before placing on your back. The idea behind heat wraps is that heat increases blood flow and reduces back stiffness and discomfort. Heat wraps use the principles of thermotherapy to create a warming sensation to boost blood flow to the affected area. But do they help with back pain?
The Effectiveness of Heat Wraps for Back Pain
The Cochrane Database for evidence-based medicine looked at nine studies assessing the effects of heat wrap therapy on lower back pain. The trials involved a total of 1,117 people. Their conclusion was that there is moderate evidence, based on limited trials, that heat wraps can modestly reduce lower back pain. But the analysis also points out that exercise, in conjunction with heat wrap therapy, has even greater benefits for back pain.
Heat wraps may be beneficial for back pain but also for other types of pain. For example, a study found that heat wraps provide continuous, low-level heat that reduces delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which occurs when muscles stretch beyond their normal range of movement and typically last 24 to 72 hours.
Another study found that heat wraps ease the joint discomfort that people with osteoarthritis of the knee experience. In the study, heat wraps offered more relief than taking the analgesic acetaminophen. Another benefit of using a heat wrap is its excellent safety profile.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications used to treat back pain carry a risk of intestinal bleeding and other adverse side effects. Large doses of acetaminophen, an analgesic, are toxic to the liver, while heat wraps are non-invasive, meaning you apply them only to your skin. They’re safe if you don’t leave them on your skin long enough to cause burns.
Using a Heat Wrap Safely
Always follow the directions when using a heat wrap. Read the directions and ensure it fits properly on your body. If you use it correctly, it may provide short-term pain relief but don’t use it for more than 20 minutes at a time to avoid burns or skin damage. Also, don’t wear a hot wrap during sleep, to avoid burning your skin. The longer you wear a heat wrap, the greater the chance of developing irritation or burns on your skin. Also, don’t use a heat wrap on already damaged or irritated skin.
Alternatives to a Heat Wrap
The reason heat wraps work is due to the warmth they provide. These wraps that fit snuggly against your achy back increase the temperature of the skin and underlying tissues. This relaxes sore back muscles and reduces spasms and muscle tightness. They also open blood vessels in the area for better oxygen and nutrient delivery.
Despite the convenience of heat wraps, other modalities for applying heat exist. One is a heating pad or hot water bottle. The latter is the better choice of the two since moist heat is more beneficial than dry heat for reducing muscle spasms and tightness. Another option is to stand in a hot shower and let the warm water strike your back.
A heat wrap can soothe an achy back by reducing pain, spasms, and stiffness, but use it safely. Read the directions carefully before applying a heat wrap and any other source of heat to your body. If you feel discomfort or pain while using a wrap, remove it immediately. Also, see your doctor if you have back pain that persists beyond a few days and you’re unsure of the cause.
Other signs you should seek medical attention for back pain include numbness or tingling in your extremities, weakness in your legs or arms, bowel or bladder incontinence, fever, or weight loss. But a heat wrap may offer temporary relief and help you stay functional if you have garden-variety back pain due to a muscle strain. Try using it as soon as you get out of bed in the morning to reduce stiffness.
Heat wraps are another tool in your toolbox for easing lower back pain due to muscle strains. But staying physically active rather than rest is also beneficial for muscle strains and acute back discomfort.
- Mayer JM, Mooney V, Matheson LN, Erasala GN, Verna JL, Udermann BE, Leggett S. Continuous low-level heat wrap therapy for the prevention and early phase treatment of delayed-onset muscle soreness of the low back: a randomized controlled trial. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2006 Oct;87(10):1310-7. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2006.07.259. PMID: 17023239.
- “Heat Wrap Soothes Knee Pain – WebMD.” 01 Apr. 2005, webmd.com/pain-management/knee-pain/news/20050401/heat-wrap-soothes-knee-pain.
- “Heat Therapy Helps Relax Stiff Joints | Arthritis Foundation.” arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/managing-pain/pain-relief-solutions/heat-therapy-helps-relax-stiff-joints.
- “Heating Pad for Back Pain: Benefits, When and How to Use – Healthline.” 23 Sept. 2019, healthline.com/health/heating-pad-for-back-pain.
- “Back pain – Diagnosis and treatment – Mayo Clinic.” 21 Aug. 2020, mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/back-pain/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20369911.
- “Back pain in the U.S. – Statistics & Facts | Statista.” 25 Aug. 2021, .statista.com/topics/4333/back-pain-in-the-us/.
- French SD, Cameron M, Walker BF, Reggars JW, Esterman AJ. A Cochrane review of superficial heat or cold for low back pain. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2006 Apr 20;31(9):998-1006. doi: 10.1097/01.brs.0000214881.10814.64. PMID: 16641776.
- “Benefits of Heat Therapy for Lower Back Pain – Spine-health.” https://www.spine-health.com/treatment/heat-therapy-cold-therapy/benefits-heat-therapy-lower-back-pain.