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Patient Resources

Heat therapy for low back pain

Patient Resources
        1. Heat therapy for low back pain

First published: 14 September 2021

The RACGP gratefully acknowledge the following contributor:

  • Zoe Michaleff, Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare, Bond University

Related GP HANDI entry TBA


 

Your doctor has recommended heat therapy for your low back pain.

Key points

  • Most people experiencing an episode of low back pain will recover on their own within 4–6 weeks.
  • Applying heat, such as a wheat bag or wrap, can help to reduce pain and improve your ability to do everyday activities in the short term.
  • Staying active is the best thing you can do to help you recover from low back pain. Heat can be used to ease the pain and help you move more freely.

How can applying heat help with low back pain?

  • Applying heat to your back increases blood flow to the area and reduces pain.
  • It also helps the muscles to relax, which can allow you to move more freely.

How to get started

  • Heat can be applied to your back over the area where you feel pain or discomfort.
  • Heat therapy includes the use:
    • wheat bags (bags filled with grain)
    • heat wraps (disposable cloth pads with low level heating ingredients)
    • heat pads (electric heating pad connected to electricity supply)
    • hot water bottles (sealed rubber containers filled with hot water).
  • Heat can be applied at any time, as needed. For example, you can apply heat after an activity that has worsened your pain. Be sure to give your skin time to return to normal temperature before using heat therapy again.
  • Heat therapy can be applied for short periods of time e.g. 30 minutes. On the other hand, heat wraps are designed to provide low-level continuous heating over a long period e.g. 8 hours.

What to look out for

  • Heat therapy is usually safe for people with low back pain.
  • Some people experience slight reddening of the skin where the heat has been applied. This should return to normal after removing the heat source and giving the skin time to return to its usual temperature.
  • If you have poor sensation (reduced feeling), talk to your doctor, pharmacist or physiotherapist before using heat therapy.
  • Extra care is required when using hot water bottles. Hot water bottles can cause burns if the water is spilt, or the hot water bottle is placed directly onto the skin. If using a hot water bottle, be sure to check that it is in good condition and has no leaks or cracks, or has become faded or brittle. Do not overfill the hot water bottle and never use boiling water. Close the lid tightly and wrap the bottle in a towel or a hot water bottle cover before applying it to your back. Do not apply pressure to a hot water bottle, e.g. lean or sit on it as it may burst.
  • Take care if you are using a wheat bag. Allow it to cool completely before you reheat it. Wrap the wheat bag in a towel before applying it to your back. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use and avoid overheating the bag.
  • The cost of the different heat therapies can vary. Wheat bags and heat wraps can be bought from local pharmacies. Electrical heat pads, which are usually more costly, can be bought from electrical product shops.
  • Some people may prefer reusable options such as wheat bags or heating pads. Heat wraps are usually single-use; once activated, they cannot be reactivated or recharged.
  • Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns or if your pain continues for more than 6 weeks.
  • Speak with a nurse on Musculoskeletal Australia’s free help line 1800 263 265 (weekdays 9 am – 5 pm).
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