Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The benefits of using heat for back pain relief

The benefits of using heat for pain relief

Using Heat for Pain Problems

When and how to apply heat for therapy … and when not to!

Published 2007, updated 2010
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canada

Not sure when to use ice or heat? Start with this super-short overview:
The Great Ice vs. Heat Confusion Debacle.
Please note that you should rarely (almost never) ice low back pain.

Therapeutic heating — “thermotherapy” for therapy geeks — is more useful than most people realize, because painful muscle problems are more common than most people realize. Pain caused by muscle spasm and muscular trigger points (muscle knots) is common and often severe, yet routinely mistaken for other kinds of problems. Consequently, one of the cheapest and best treatments — heat! — is routinely neglected.
Mustard plasters were widely used and probably brought about relaxation of muscle spasm through the heat generated by the plaster. Sometimes folk medicine is more sensible than ‘modern’ medicine. In any case, I suspect that the low-key, nonthreatening approach to back problems characterized by an earlier time helped to prevent the kind of long-term, disastrous courses that exist today.
John Sarno, Mind Over Back Pain: A radically new approach to the diagnosis and treatment of back pain
Everyone should understand heating the same way everyone knows how to put on a band aid. It is a cheap, drugless way of helping an amazing array of pain problems related to muscle dysfunction, especially neck and back pain. Heat will not single-handedly “cure” such problems, but it is directly therapeutic, as opposed to “just” relieving symptoms.

What heat is for

Heat is primarily for muscle pain, and for stress relief. Warm Buddy heat packs and heat wraps offer a warm moist penetrating heat, that penetrate the muscle tissue and relieve aches and pains fast  and without the need of any over the counter pain medication.
The trick is knowing what muscle pain is. Muscle causes much more pain than most people are aware of. Some kinds of muscle pain are obvious enough — like the pain you get after the first ski trip of the season, or charlie horses in the night — but these are relatively isolated and obvious examples. Also, heat isn’t especially useful for them. Charlie horses are pretty fast, and for most people a rare problem, thankfully. And that post-exercise muscle soreness is virtually immune to any kind of therapy.
But muscle knots …
When you say that you have “knots in your muscles,” you are actually talking about trigger points. A trigger point is a small patch of contracted, stagnant, swampy muscle tissue. Instead of the whole muscle being in spasm, just a little piece of it is in spasm.
If you’d like to detour and learn much more about trigger points, see
Trigger Points & Myofascial Pain Syndrome: A guide to the science of muscle pain, with reviews of every possible self-treatment and therapy option, even for the most difficult cases.

Trigger points are likely to be the most common cause of undiagnosed and unexplained aches and pains, especially stubborn or recurrent headaches, neck cricks and backaches. It is a much more common cause of pain than the more widely reported repetitive strain injuries (RSIs), nerve pain, or herniated disks. Trigger points also complicate essentially all other injuries: they usually appear in response to other kinds of pain and dysfunction, and then often begin to overshadow the original problem.
And heat is a good therapy for trigger points.

What heat is not for

Never apply heat to a fresh injury! Really. Just don’t do it! That’s what icing is for. Ice is for injuries.
And what’s a “fresh” injury? Any time tissue has been physically damaged, it will be inflamed for a few days, give or take, depending on the seriousness of the injury. If superficial tissue is sensitive to touch, if the skin is hot and red, if there is swelling, these are all signs that your injury is still fresh, and should not be heated.
Here’s an example of what can happen when you heat an inflamed injury: When I was still in school, and my father had not yet learned to call me before asking a doctor about his aches and pains, he went to a drop-in clinic following a traumatic knee injury. The physician on duty prescribed heat! This is shockingly wrong, but the results spoke loud and clear: his knee swelled dramatically, outrageously, causing severe pain and immobility.
Bear in mind that heating is for muscle knots or trigger points and muscle spasm, but not for physically injured muscle — muscle strains, pulled muscles, torn muscles. Damaged muscle is usually inflamed, not in spasm, and trigger points are a minor factor in the aftermath of the injury. It’s usually obvious that you’ve torn muscle because there is always a very clear, nasty “oh shit” moment of trauma, where you know — instantly — that something has gone quite wrong.
However, you may be understandably confused about the difference between spasms, knots, tears, etc., especially if you have back pain, where it can and does sometimes get all mixed together. People routinely believe that their backs and necks are injured when in fact they are just suffering from trigger points. I have other articles devoted to clearing up this confusion.
If you think you have a muscle strain, but you’re not sure, a great article for helping you sort it out is Save Yourself from Muscle Strain!
If back pain is your issue and your not sure what’s causing it, get thee to Save Yourself from Low Back Pain!
And the article (Almost) Never Use Ice on Low Back Pain! is specifically devoted to helping people understand why heating back pain is almost always better than icing it.Heat therapy

How heat works

It’s not scientifically clear exactly why heat is such a treat. However, a good guess is that there are several minor positive effects that add up to … therapy. Most of these effects are also beneficial in other ways. Not incredibly beneficial, and not even notably different from icing: for instance, a 2010 study showed quite clearly that both ice packs and hot packs were beneficial for neck and back pain, and about equally so.1 But a small therapeutic effect is still valuable even if it’s small, and there are probably situations where it works even better — after all, these were people with acute pain bad enough that they went to the hospital. They may have been a bit beyond the help of a hot pack!
Trigger points are known to be aggravated by stress (“fight or flight” hormones and neurology). As long as we aren’t overheated to begin with, being warm is a pleasant and comforting sensation. Our comfort zone is a warm place. Heat almost always relaxes you overall.
Overall relaxation usually reduces resting muscle tone. You can have “tight” muscles without actually being in spasm. There are many degrees of increasing muscle tone between relaxed and “spasm.” A true muscle spasm is very strong and painful, like a charlie horse. But many people live in a state of near spasm — their muscles always clenched and exhausted. This state is both uncomfortable in itself, causing the same kind of muscle discomfort that you have when you are exhausted from exercise … but without the endorphins. And of course it also aggravates trigger points. So any reduction in muscle tone is quite helpful. And the reduction in stress hormones makes it a more therapeutic (lasting) effect, as opposed to just momentary symptom relief.
Our comfort zone is a warm place. Heat almost always relaxes you overall.
Although scientists don’t really understand the physiology of why trigger points come and go, they have certainly identified why they hurt — the stagnant, swampy tissue fluids inside a trigger point are a disgusting bath for nerve endings. Heat facilitates circulation somewhat, helping to wash away metabolic waste products, and bring fresh oxygen and nutrients to the area. No one knows how strong this effect is.
As with everything about trigger points, there are many (many) variables, and consequently it is very hard to study, and everyone gets different results. But heat seems to have enough relevant benefits that many people get at least temporary, partial relief from trigger point pain by heating. And some people find it downright curative.

Cancer - skin stimulation:

Skin stimulation

In this series of techniques, pressure, warmth, or cold is used on the skin, while the feeling of pain is lessened or blocked. Massage, pressure, vibration, heat, cold, and menthol preparations can also be used to stimulate the skin. These techniques also change the flow of blood to the area that is stimulated. Sometimes skin stimulation will get rid of pain or lessen pain during the stimulation and for hours after it is finished.
Skin stimulation is done either on or near the area of pain. You can also use skin stimulation on the side of the body opposite the pain. For example, you might stimulate the left knee to decrease the pain in the right knee. Stimulating the skin in areas away from the pain can be used to increase relaxation and may relieve pain.

We have many customers who have gone through chemotherapy and have found our heat packs to be of great relief for their after pain, all our heat packs can be used hot or cold depending on the type of therapy required.

Warm Buddy make the best heat packs for relieving pain and stress

Warm Buddy Company creates products that promote relaxation and provide natural relief from aches, pains and stress. We have been following this philosophy since 1995, while creating our world famous aromatherapy heat wraps, heat packs, eye pillows and the original warm up plush animals.

Warm Buddy rejuvenating heat therapy products have become recognized for their superior quality and long heat holding ability. Warm Buddy heat wraps and heat packs are safe, easy to use and highly effective. Simply heat in the microwave or cool in the freezer as desired.

All Warm Buddy heat therapy products are Approved medical devices by Health Canada for the relief of aches pains and stress.

All Warm Buddy heat therapy products are proudly made in Canada.

Heat and Pain Relief

We instinctively know that heat is good for pain relief, but do we know why? 

Scientists have found a molecular basis for the long-standing theory that heat, such as that from a hot-water bottle applied to the skin, provides relief from internal pains, such as stomach aches, for up to an hour.

Dr Brian King, leader of the team that carried out the research at the UCL Department of Physiology, said: "The heat doesn't just provide comfort and have a placebo effect - it actually deactivates the pain at a molecular level in much the same way as pharmaceutical painkillers work. We have discovered how this molecular process works."

The team found that when heat is applied to the skin near to where internal pain is felt, it switches on heat receptors located at the site of injury. These heat receptors in turn block the effect of chemical messengers that cause pain to be detected by the body.   

How does heat help?
  • By increasing tissue elasticity, heat reduces your resting muscle tension and helps to relax those nasty painful knots.
  • Your pain is quickly eased via the sedation and soothing of any pain-irritated nerve endings.
  • The deep heating effect increases your blood flow to the painful area, bringing more nutrients to the injured area while flushing out the injured debris. This helps to quicken your healing rate.
  • The deep heat also promotes a speedier healing rate by stimulating your natural metabolic rate. In other words, there is more energy available to fix the injury quicker.

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