Benefits of heat therapy for lower back pain (2023)

While the general qualities of heat and warmth have long been associated with comfort and relaxation, heat therapy goes a step further, offering both pain relief and healing benefits for many types oflower back pain.

It is possible to make a moist heat pack using common household items. Regard: Video: How to make a homemade hot compress

This article looks at how heat therapy interacts with the body and how it can be used to relieve back pain.

8 Essential Ways Heat Therapy Relieves And Heals Low Back Pain

The main benefits of thermotherapy for back pain are achieved in the following ways:

1. Heat therapy speeds up the healing process

Heat therapy promotes healing by increasing blood flow to the muscles of the lower back. Increased blood flow provides more oxygen, white blood cells, platelets, and essential nutrients, all of which help repair and heal damaged tissue.

Sensory nerves respond to applied heat by releasing chemical messengers that dilate local blood vessels and increase the velocity of blood flow. 1 Petrofsky J, Berk L, Bains G et al. Moist heat or dry heat for delayed muscle soreness. J.Clin. Med Res 2013;5(6):416-425. doi:10.4021/jocmr1521wBoth the heat supplied and the increased blood flow contribute to the fact that the skin temperature rises up to the body's core temperature. Once the skin reaches core temperature, the blood absorbs the excess heat and protects the skin from burns. 2 Petrofsky J, Paluso D, Anderson D, et al. The contribution of skin blood flow to skin heating after local heat application; the duality of the Pennes heat equation. Med Ing Phys. 2011;33(3):325-329. doi:10.1016/j.medengphy.2010.10.018

Benefits of heat therapy for lower back pain (2)

(Video) Ice Or Heat For Back Pain Relief & Injury?

Heat therapy dilates blood vessels (vasodilation), which increases blood flow. This improves blood flow to the painful or stiff area.

Heat is also transmitted deep into the muscles from the skin's surface, improving blood flow to the muscles. The heat must penetrate the layer of fat directly under the skin, which may prevent heat therapy from being effective for people with a thicker layer of fat. 3 Petrofsky J, Bains G, Prowse M et al. Dry heat, moist heat and body fat: are heat treatments really effective for overweight people? J Med Eng Technol. 2009;33(5):361-369. doi:10.1080/03091900802355508, 4 Petrofsky JS, Laymon M. Deep tissue heat transfer: the effect of body fat and heating modality. J Med Eng Technol. 2009;33(5):337-348. doi:10.1080/03091900802069547

2. Heat relieves painful muscle spasms

Most forms of low back pain involve some element of muscle spasm in the lower back. Although it sounds harmless, muscle spasms can be very painful and are actually a common cause of emergency room visits.

Verremoved muscle treatment

Muscle spasms restrict blood flow and send pain signals to the brain. Heat therapy can help relieve tension in the lower back by restoring blood flow, relaxing tight muscles, and relieving associated pain.

VerWhat does back muscle spasm tell you?


3. Heat reduces pain caused by stiffness

The application of heat facilitates the stretching of the soft tissues around the spine, including muscles, connective tissue, and adhesions. Consequently, regular heat therapy for the back generally provides:

  • Decreased stiffness and injuries.
  • Greater freedom of movement 5 Bleakley CM, Costello JT. Do thermal agents affect the range of motion and mechanical properties of soft tissues? A systematic view. Arch Phys Med Rehabilitation. 2013;94(1):149-163. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2012.07.023
  • Increased trunk movements. 6 Freiwald J, Hoppe MW, Beermann W, Krajewski J, Baumgart C. Effects of adjunctive heat therapy on strength and flexibility in multimodally treated chronic low back pain patients. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2018;57:107-113. doi:10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2018.06.008

There is a general feeling of comfort and daily activities seem less difficult when lower back stiffness is relieved.

4. The heat makes therapeutic exercise more bearable

Physical therapy, stretching, and exercise are essential components of most treatments for low back pain. Heat therapy is typically applied to the lower back immediately before a physical therapy session, and heat is recommended prior to exercise and stretching.

(Video) When To Use Heat or Ice - The Back Coach - Penn State Spine Center

VerPhysiotherapy to relieve back pain

In addition, frequent heat therapy at home makes it easier to perform exercises, 7 Petrofsky JS, Laymon M, Alshammari F, Khowailed IA, Lee H. Use of continuous low heat and ibuprofen as an adjunct to physical therapy improves pain relief, range of motion, and home exercise compliance in patients with pain Nonspecific neck pain: a randomized controlled trial. J back musculoskeletal rehabilitation. 2017;30(4):889-896. doi:10.3233/BMR-160577between and long after physical therapy sessions. By facilitating consistent exercise, the application of heat inevitably improves the overall outcome of physiotherapy for neck or back pain.

In this article:

  • Benefits of heat therapy for back pain
  • How to use heat therapy
  • Possible risks and contraindications of thermotherapy
  • Video on the treatment of back pain
  • Video: How to make a homemade hot compress

Benefits of heat therapy for lower back pain (3)

VerChronic pain gate control theory infographic

5. Heat interrupts the transmission of pain signals

The pain gate control theory involves sensory receptors located on nerve endings. Receptors compete with each other to reach the brain, and it is possible for one set of activated receptors to silence or block another set of receptors. Heat therapy activates heat-sensitive calcium channels, which can directly block pain receptors or stimulate other sensory receptors for indirect pain relief. 1 Petrofsky J, Berk L, Bains G et al. Moist heat or dry heat for delayed muscle soreness. J.Clin. Med Res 2013;5(6):416-425. doi:10.4021/jocmr1521w

VerThe Gate Control Theory of Chronic Pain

(Video) Benefits of Heat Therapy for Lower Back Pain | Treat Sciatica natural

6. Heat creates relaxing chemicals.

Heat therapy can reduce psychological stress, as indicated by blood cortisol levels 8 Antonelli M, Donelli D. Effects of balneotherapy and spa therapy on cortisol levels as biomarkers of stress: a systematic review. IntJ Biometeorol. 2018;62(6):913-924. doi:10.1007/s00484-018-1504-8, and also reduce oxidative stress at a chemical level. The relaxing effects of heat are the reason why so many spa treatments involve the use of heat applications such as hot stones, hot towels, and hot baths.

7. Heat boosts immunity

The elevated body temperature of heat therapy (external heat) mimics the function of fever (internal heat), which is designed to stimulate the immune system to respond on multiple levels.

Research suggests that regular use of certain heat therapies provides:

  • An activated immune system.Hot baths activate monocytes, a type of white blood cell that helps remove dead cells, fight infection, and release more cytokines. 9 Ramírez FE, Sánchez A, Pirskanen AT. Hydrothermotherapy for the prevention and treatment of mild to moderate cases of COVID-19. Median Hypotheses. 2021;146:110363. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2020.110363These are small proteins that act as signals between immune cells and other cells in the body.
  • A decrease in inflammatory markers.Frequent visits to the sauna are associated with lower levels of C-reactive protein in the blood. 10 Laukkanen JA, Laukkanen T. Sauna bath and systemic inflammation. Eur J Epidemiol. 2018;33(3):351-353. doi:10.1007/s10654-017-0335-yLow levels of this protein indicate a strong immune system. Regular balneotherapy (warm baths with mineral water) reduces the level of interleukin-1 and leukotriene B4, 11 Ardiç F, Ozgen M, Aybek H, Rota S, Cubukçu D, Gökgöz A. Effects of balneotherapy on serum levels of IL-1, PGE2 and LTB4 in patients with fibromyalgia. Rheumatol Int. 2007;27(5):441-446. doi:10.1007/s00296-006-0237-x Lloyd A, Scott DA, Akehurst RL, Lurie-Luke E, Jessen G. Cost-effectiveness of low-level heat wrap therapy for low back pain. appreciate health. 2004;7(4):413-422. doi:10.1111/j.1524-4733.2004.74004.xBoth are proteins involved in inflammation.

The long-term effects of heat therapy include a reduction in mild inflammation commonly seen in chronic pain conditions. The short-term effect of applying heat to damaged, infected, or swollen tissue is increased inflammation. For this reason, localized heat therapy is avoided immediately after injury (avoid heat for the first 48 hours and use cold packs to help with acute inflammation).

VerIce packs to relieve back pain


8. Heat reduces drug dependence

Heat therapy is more effective and less expensive than over-the-counter pain relievers. 12 Lloyd A, Scott DA, Akehurst RL, Lurie-Luke E, Jessen G. Cost-effectiveness of low-level heat wrap therapy for low back pain. appreciate health. 2004;7(4):413-422. doi:10.1111/j.1524-4733.2004.74004.xThe low risk of side effects is one of the key benefits of heat therapy. Back pain is common, so treating any episode of pain with pain relievers can lead to drug addiction. Heat therapy offers a valuable alternative to drug therapy for chronic low back pain.

VerBack and neck pain medications

Heat application is the treatment of choice for people who want a natural form of pain relief that works on multiple levels simultaneously: healing the body, relaxing muscles, facilitating exercise, and reducing stress.


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How does heat therapy help lower back pain? ›

The main reason heating pads and heat therapy are so effective for back pain is because they increase circulation. When this happens, oxygen and nutrients make their way to the muscles and joints. Not only can better circulation resolve muscle damage, it can also relieve back stiffness and inflammation.

How effective is heat for back pain? ›

The answer depends on what type of back pain you are trying to address. If you are living with chronic pain or discomfort that lasts for more than four weeks, heat may help relax the tissues in the area and decrease pain signals. Heat can also encourage blood vessels in your back to dilate, which can promote healing.

Should you use heat on lower back pain? ›

When you first notice your soreness expanding to your lower back, it is important to start ice therapy immediately. This should reduce tissue damage, inflammation and pain. If the soreness continues after one day, switch to heat therapy. Switching to heat therapy should encourage tissue healing.

How does heat therapy reduce inflammation? ›

Heat therapy. Applying heat to an inflamed area will dilate the blood vessels, promote blood flow, and help sore and tightened muscles relax. Improved circulation can help eliminate the buildup of lactic acid waste occurs after some types of exercise.

What type of back pain is relieved by heat? ›

Heat calms painful muscle spasms

Heat therapy can help relieve tightness in the lower back by recouping circulation, relaxing tense muscles, and reducing related pain.

How long does heat therapy take for lower back pain? ›

Apply heat for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Moist heat (hot packs, baths, showers) works better than dry heat. Try an all-day heat wrap, available in pharmacies. If you are using an electric heating pad, avoid falling asleep while the pad is on.

What are the disadvantages of heat therapy? ›

Potential Risks of Heat Therapy
  • Skin rash or burn. Prolonged use of hot packs and heating pads, or application of a heat source that is overly hot without a barrier on the skin, can cause contact burns. ...
  • Decreased blood pressure. ...
  • Increased heart rate. ...
  • Increased swelling and inflammation.

How often should you apply heat to lower back pain? ›

Always use heat and cold therapy intermittently, for 15 to 20 minutes, with a 2-hour break in between to avoid skin and nerve damage.

Does heat speed up healing? ›

Applying heat to a body part stimulates blood circulation to the injury site. This oxygen-rich blood brings nutrients to the affected area, promoting healing. Heat also helps to remove lactic acid buildup from overtaxed muscles, which allows them to “un-clench.”

How often should I use a heating pad for lower back pain? ›

Always use heat and cold therapy intermittently, for 15 to 20 minutes, with a 2-hour break in between to avoid skin and nerve damage.

Is heat or cold better for lower back pain? ›

If you have back pain from muscle soreness or a strain, cold can help in the first 2 days. But cold can slow down recovery over the long term. Switch to heat after the first couple of days of back pain. Gentle heat can help with pain and movement.


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