Pain can be debilitating and the accompanying stiffness may make normal activities of daily life difficult. Discomfort is often relieved by local application of heat using hot moist packs or a heating pad as a dry heat application. Both methods have value, but experts believe moist heat is more effective. Many people use both heating pad and hot pack to relieve pain and increase mobility.
Muscle spasms from injury or a long-term disorder restrict circulation, which causes pain. Heat penetrates painful tissues, increases circulation, brings additional oxygen, carries away toxins and promotes healing. This gives pain relief, improves mobility and reduces inflammation. Heat eases chronic pain of arthritis, back and neck injuries. It facilitates stretching of connective tissues, softens adhesions, decreases stiffness and increases flexibility of spine and joints. Heat applications to face and head are helpful in relieving certain types of migraine pain.
Advantages of Heating Pads
Electric heating pads have been used for years and remain popular. Heating pads are made of sturdy material with an electrical coil inside that heats when plugged into power. There is a temperature control and the pad produces uniform heat. A "medical use" designation has been given to some that have more than one type of sensor to control the heat output. This decreases danger of burns in patients who are unable to sense a temperature change or communicate their needs. If you have morning pain and stiffness, keep a heating pad handy and apply it to areas of discomfort. This type of heat is quick and easy to use.
Advantages of Hot Compresses
Heat applications increase circulation, relax muscle spasms and block pain transmitters. Moist heat penetrates quicker and more deeply into inflamed tissues. Hot moist heat packs can be made by soaking a towel in hot water and wrapping it tightly in plastic. When cool, it can be reheated in microwave. Hydrocollator packs are canvas wrapped pads, containing silicone dioxide, which are immersed in hot water. They are wrapped in towels and applied to painful area.
When circulation or sensation to a limb is impaired, extended use of moist or dry heat applications can cause burns. Selecting a "medical use" heating pad is advised by experts to reduce skin burn danger, but no pad should be used during sleep because coils can tangle, producing electrical shock. Most heating pads don’t conform well to the shape of the neck but are helpful on all areas of back and legs. Hot compresses also can cause skin burns if applied when too hot. Re-heating moist hot compresses in microwave presents fire danger.
Water is the most effective heat conductor and tests have proved moist heat penetrates 27 times better than dry heat. The body can tolerate a higher level of moist heat and experts recommend moist therapy for acute, short-term pain as well as chronic, long-term pain. Decisions about the type of heat application you use should include your frequency of use, finances and available supplies.
Nancy Williams has been writing about health-related topics since 1979. Her work has been published in "Prevention," "Nurseweek" and "Senior Life." Williams is a registered nurse with more than 35 years of experience and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in health-care administration. She is working on a book about historic sites in the West.