Warming creams or plasters can be a relief for tensions. But why do they do us such good then? A pain expert explains what is behind them – and why caution is sometimes necessary.
Back pain is one of the most common types of pain in Western society and has become a real national affliction. Mild pain and tension can often be relieved with warmth, for example with heated cherry pit pillows or a hot water bottle. Chili can also help.
For back pain, heat in the form of ointments or plasters often helps. But why? “Basically, around 80 percent of back pain is muscle pain, which is based on tension and imbalances,” says orthopedic surgeon Prof. Hans-Raimund Casser. “A muscle reacts positively to heat, it relaxes and then the pain subsides,” explains the medical director of the DRK pain center in Mainz.
Why heat helps
Some also use cherry pit pillows, which can be warmed and placed on the back. Everything is allowed and possible, as long as it does not burn the skin, says Casser, who is on the board of the German Pain Society. Hot water bottles are often too hot.
People whose pain sensation is disturbed should be careful – diabetics, for example. They may notice too late if their skin is damaged by heat. In the case of injuries or inflammations on the skin – for example as a result of an insect bite – heating measures are generally not good, says Casser.
Special plasters and ointments contain painkillers and in some cases active ingredients against inflammation. Non-prescription drugs would work one to two centimeters under the skin. “If you know that most disorders are not so superficial, you are therefore only treating the symptoms and not the cause of the pain,” the physician explains. But that’s fine, he says.
Why does heat also work on the nerves and not only on the muscle? According to Casser, the pain conductors (C fibers) are the thinnest nerve fibers we have – and they are responsible for both temperature and pain sensation. “This allows the sensation of pain to be suppressed by cold and warm stimuli. (ad; source: dpa/tmn)
In general, plasters are more effective than creams, says Casser, because they have an insulating layer on the outside, which increases their effect on the inside. There are also patches containing a very high proportion of the chili extract capsaicin that can be used for neuropathic pain. For example, when intervertebral discs press on nerves. “They also have a deeper effect and reduce the pain receptors,” the expert explains. However, because of their strong effect, the patches must be used under medical supervision.
Heat relieves back pain
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