Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Truth About Heating Pads and Back Pain by Dan Jobes

Millions of people use heating pads each night to cope with their chronic back pain but most people have no idea if these pads even work! The actual physiology of heat therapy may surprise you.

Both pain and heat signals are normally sent from the spinal cord up to the brain where they are interpreted. However, the brain can only interpret so many spinal signals at one time. In order to deal with sensory overload, your brain subconsciously decides which signal to pay attention to in a predictable fashion.

The reason heating pads produce back pain relief is because your brain elects to ignore pain signals and instead pay attention to the temperature change induced by the heating pad.

Unfortunately, when the heating pad is removed, temperature signals fade and your brain has no choice but to once again pay attention to pain signals. This explains the rapid fading of pain in response to heat therapy (and its rapid return once the heat is removed). They essentially trick your brain into forgetting about the pain.

Heating pads are a great method for reducing back pain but there are two tragic flaws with this approach to getting pain relief.

One problem is that heating pads should not be used in the presence of swelling or tenderness (signs of inflammation), as heat increases blood flow which aggravates inflammation. This can cause the intended therapy to backfire by increasing pain and swelling.

The other main problem with heat therapy is that the real cause for back pain does not go away on its own! Heat simply blocks the pain. If left untreated, pain will increase as the underlying dysfunction continues to wear down the spine. However, correcting underlying dysfunction is beyond the scope of this article.