Heat therapy might just be the best kept secret in unlocking your back pain. With options like continuous heat wraps and portable heat patches, heat therapy has been shown to reduce pain and improve function faster than any other treatment. Let’s talk about why heat therapy works and how it can transform your approach to back pain.
Heat therapy eases musculoskeletal pain primarily by increasing blood flow and relaxing muscles. Heat enhances circulation which then brings in more oxygen and nutrients to a painful area which can help heal damaged tissues. Heat also helps reduce muscle spasms and stiffness which can decrease pain and improve range of motion.
The warmth from heat therapy also serves as a signal that helps distract the body from pain. It's a subtle but effective tactic that aligns with something called the gate control theory. This theory suggests that physical sensations can block pain signals before they reach the brain. By leveraging this approach, heat therapy offers a valuable tool in managing both acute and chronic pain.
A study examining acute low back pain found that using heat combined with exercise therapy not only improved function by up to 175% compared to other methods but also significantly reduced pain and disability. In fact, 72% of people using this combo bounced back to their pre-injury activity levels, far outpacing the 20% recovery rate of other treatments.
Other research on acute low back pain shows that on the first day, heat wraps provided more pain relief compared to common painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen. And it doesn’t stop there—over the next few days, heat wraps continued to outperform these medications in reducing pain and improving flexibility. The authors conclude that continuous low-level heat wrap therapy is superior to both acetaminophen and ibuprofen for treating low back pain.
Both of these studies used a protocol of continuous low level heat at 40 degrees celsius or 104 degrees fahrenheit for 8 hours per day. There are a lot of different types of heat wraps available but here’s an example of a continuous heat wrap that you may want to try out. It covers the entirety of your back and has an adjustable strap for ease of use. You can also adjust the temperature based on what feels good for you.
For those of you who need something more portable, consider using a heat patch. These are single use options that can provide low level heat therapy for more than 12 hours. They allow much more flexibility and mobility and allow you to move freely. Better yet, it’s discreet enough to be worn underneath your clothing without being noticed.