The back, and especially the lower back, is the most commonly aching body area amongst adults, as this study points out. Another study showed that one in every four U.S. adults reported experiencing at least one whole day of back pain in the last three months. All sorts of fun things (like muscle/ ligament strains, herniated disks, improper posture, arthritis, and many other enjoyable conditions) may be the cause of your back pain.
If you have read any of the other articles on this website, you know that we are all about looking at medical research and expert recommendations of natural remedies for different conditions. We will stay true to that fact in this article too as we look at how effective heat therapy and other remedies can be for back pain. Main bullet points in this article are:
- Research Regarding Heat for Back Pain Relief
- Some of the Medical Schools and Nonprofit Organizations Recommending Heat
- Other Natural Remedies for Back Pain Relief
- How to Avoid Back Pain
Before we dive right into it, let’s just quickly mention the 3 types of pain (duration wise):
Type of short-lasting pain that typically goes away after no more than 3 months and is directly related to soft tissue damage such as a sprained ankle or a paper cut.
This is pain that has passed the acute phase. It has not yet entered the chronic phase and the pain severity of it is usually lower than in acute pain.
Chronic pain is pain that lasts over 6 months. It may not have a clear origin but it can be caused by something as simple as a back strain. Chronic pain often comes with other chronic symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disturbance, and others.
SO, CAN HEATING PADS REALLY GIVE US BACK PAIN RELIEF?
Let’s begin by looking into what some clinical trials showed on the matter.
The Australasian Cochrane Centre conducted a study of 9 trials and 1,117 participants regarding the effects of heat therapy. In two of those trials (258 people), it was concluded that heat wrap therapy significantly reduced acute and subacute (short and medium long-lasting) lower back pain after 5 days of use.In another trial (of 90 people) in the same study, it was observed that applying a heating blanket significantly decreased pain immediately after application.
Heating wraps were combined with exercise in another trial (of 100 people), which concluded that the combination of heat and exercise effectively reduces pain after 7 days. However, it is important to state that some of the other trials in the study provided some conflicting results regarding the effectiveness of heating for the participants’ pain.
Another study focusing on the combination of heat and exercise showed moderate quality evidence that functional improvement in people with acute (short-term) pain who used both heat and exercise was 84% and 95% higher than the those who used heat or exercise alone. 72% of people who combined heat plus exercise returned to their pre-injury function, while only 20% of those who used heat or exercise alone were able to fully recover. Disability reduction for heat plus exercise was 93% higher than just a heating wrap and 139% greater than just exercise alone.
A research from 2007 suggested that heating from a pad/wrap may also be more effective in reducing acute and subacute pain than an ultrasound. If you’re currently undergoing ultrasound therapy, heating pads may provide additional back pain relief.
As mentioned in previous articles, we must note that the research conducted on the effects of heat therapy on back pain is of a limited amount and a moderate quality. But, John P. A. Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine and of Health Research in Stanford School of Medicine (also of Statistics in Stanford’s Humanities and Science), wrote an article in 2005 which was dedicated to the fact that a large portion of all medical research out there (regardless the topic) is likely flawed. This was because of different biases, conflicts of interest, low trial quality, etc. You can read this very interesting article here.
THEREFORE, LET’S ALSO TAKE A LOOK AT WHAT SOME EXPERTS SAY ON THE MATTER.
Note: For most fresh injuries, heat is not recommended in the first 48 hours. Instead, in that period of time, ice or cold is much better (as heat can even be counterproductive). It’s best to contact your doctor to find out if heating pads are right for the current stage of your injury (or appropriate for your condition).
OTHER NATURAL WAYS TO TREAT BACK PAIN
Unfortunately, there are not many clinically proven natural remedies for back pain relief. Chiropractic manipulation, as popular as it is, is not soundly backed with research. Regardless, as this poll by Gallup.com suggests, 33 million Americans saw a chiropractor in 2014. The same poll says that two-thirds of those people stated that chiropractic manipulation was “effective” for their back and/or neck pain (direct quote, not sarcasm). Still, some of us have had a bad experience with dishonest chiropractors in the past. As a matter of fact, in another poll by Gallup, it was found that chiropractors were viewed in the bottom of the chain amongst health professionals in regards to honesty and ethics.
Regardless, here are a couple treatments that have been shown to help with back pain:
Botanical supplements are supplements made from herbal products. According to this study, certain kinds of botanical supplements might effectively relieve your pain in the short-term (less than a month). The long-term improvement was not tested. The kinds of botanicals which the University of Minnesota Medical School recommend for lower back pain are Curcumin, Bromelain, and Quercetin. In case you want to see botanical supplements compared to NSAIDs (like Advil and others), check out this study by clicking here. Talk to your doctor to make sure botanical supplements are right for you; if so, ask for the proper dosage.
Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT)
OMT is hands-on care involving a physician to use their hands to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness or injury. It is not the same as going to the chiropractor. In OMT, the adjustments are very subtle and gentle, without any “popping/cracking” of the joints. OMT also includes stretching, pressure and mobilization. As far as the effect of OMT on lower back pain goes, this study confirmed that it indeed decreased lower back pain. The osteopathic treatment was compared to a placebo and it was also evaluated on its own, without comparing it to anything. The trials were conducted both in the U.S. and the U.K. and all point to significant pain reduction due to OMT. If it has intrigued you, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor.
AVOID BACK PAIN WITH THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Exercising, and doing so properly, is a great way to strengthen your back while also improving flexibility. As this research shows, exercising presents low (if any) risk, again – if done properly, for harm on your back. Instead, it may actually help prevent future back pains, as well as reduce current pain between 10% and 50%. Exercising is most categorically proven to work for chronic pain, but there’s also moderate evidence it can help an acute and subacute pain. With risk to become redundant, we will say that it’s important that you don’t lift heavy, or even light objects while your back is bent. Also, laying in bed for a long time may slow down your recovery process or even make your back pain worse (source here.
The heavier you are, the more prone you are to injuries. If you’re overweight, more stress would fall on your back (as well as other body parts like knees, ankles, etc.) which triggers chronic pain or create acute/subacute pain. So, if you identify yourself with this, here’s yet another reason to get in shape. Don’t forget that even minor changes in your eating habits, combined with as little as 10 minutes of exercise a day, can have great results. Also, to maintain healthy bones, you may want to include Calcium and Vitamin D in your daily eating patterns. If you wish to read more on the association between being overweight and experiencing back pain, you can do so with this study.
Whether through the physical impact of exercising or the inescapable force of gravity, one may experience serious problems if not maintaining a proper posture. When standing, your head, neck, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should form a straight line. This way your weight is falling straight down and isn’t causing a specific part of your body (most commonly your back) to take more weight than it should.
Maintaining a good posture can be especially difficult if you spend a lot of your day sitting down. When sitting, try to keep the same principle and keep a straight line between your back, shoulders, neck, and head. Elevate your monitor, on eye level or higher, to prevent bending your neck forward. Keep your shoulders tucked in and rest your forearms on the desk, as you’re typing on the keyboard. Finally, keep your knees bent, at approximately a 90-degree angle, and your feet parallel and close together. To learn way more about proper posture, visit the reference point of the last two paragraphs – here.