Many episodes of lower back pain result from strains and over-exertions which creates tension in the muscles and soft tissues around the lower spine. As a result, this restricts circulation and sends pain signals to the brain. Heat therapy can help relieve discomfort from the muscle spasm and related tightness in the lower back by:
- decreasing muscle spasms and increasing range of motion
- stimulating your sensory receptors to block the transmission of pain signals to the brain, resulting in effective pain relief
- opening up blood vessels, which increases blood flow and supplies oxygen and nutrients to reduce pain in joints and relax sore muscles, ligaments, and tendons
- improving the flexibility of tendons and ligaments, reducing muscle spasms, and alleviate pain.
There are different ways for heat to be applied to the lower back:
- heat wraps – wraps around the lower back and waist and may be worn against the skin under clothing, providing convenience and several hours of low level of heat application
- hot water bottle – tends to stay warm for 20 to 30 minutes
- heated gel packs – can be microwaved, or heated in water, and tends to stay warm for about 30 minutes
- hot bath or tub, sauna, steam bath – tends to stimulate general feelings of comfort and relaxation that may help reduce muscle spasm and pain
- electric heating pad – maintains a constant level of heat as long as it is plugged in
For minor back tension, short amounts of heat therapy may be sufficient e.g. 15 – 20 minutes. For more intense injuries, longer sessions of heat may be more beneficial e.g. 30 minutes – 2 hours. Safety tips:
- Don’t lie down on a heating pad; you could fall asleep and burn your skin.
- Don’t apply heat for longer than 20 minutes, unless your GP or physical therapist recommends it.
- Don’t apply heat directly to skin. Instead, wrap the hot device in a thin towel.
- Heat should not be used in certain circumstances e.g. if the lower back is swollen or bruised. Heat application is also not suitable in the following cases: dermatitis, deep vein thrombosis, diabetes, peripheral vascular disease or if you have open wound or stitches.
Heat therapy is most effective when the temperature remains steady for the entire duration of the treatment. You will want the wrap or pad to stay warm, but not hot, for as long as possible.
For many people, heat therapy works best when combined with other treatment modalities, such as physical therapy and exercise.
Extra tips for managing lower back pain include exercising regularly to keep your back and stomach muscles strong and to make sure you alternate sitting positions and regular movement when working in a sitting position.