Is Deep Heat Good For Back Pain? A Doctor’s Perspective -
April 27, 2023

Is Deep Heat Good For Back Pain? A Doctor’s Perspective

Is Deep Heat Good For Back Pain? A Doctor’s Perspective

By Dr Shoaib Muhammad , published on April 27, 2023
Dr Dusan Sekulic MD

If you suffer from back pain, you're certainly not alone. It's the single leading cause of disability and missed work days worldwide.

It can seriously impact your quality of life, too. 

But is Deep Heat good for back pain? This topical cream can help alleviate muscle pain and stiffness. If that's the cause of your back pain and not something more serious, then yes, Deep Heat may be help you. 

If you want more info on what you're putting on your skin and how it helps sore backs, read on.

What is Deep Heat?

Deep Heat is a heat rub designed to provide pain relief for your sore or strained muscles. The product comes in various forms like cream, gel, spray, and patches. It's applied topically and works by creating a warming sensation on your skin [1].

This warming sensation can help to ease pain and promote healing and, from personal experience, I can confirm that it seems to work.

The manufacturer's website claims that it "...stimulates vasodilation and an increase in blood flow" and that claim is backed up by several independent studies. 

Deep Heat's Active Ingredients Explained

The active ingredients in Deep Heat vary depending on the product. But most products contain some combination of the following [1]:

  • Menthol - a cooling agent that provides a sensation of coldness on the skin. This can help to numb the pain and reduce inflammation.
  • Methyl Salicylate - an analgesic (for pain relief) and anti-inflammatory agent similar in structure to aspirin.
  • Eucalyptus Oil - a natural oil that has a cooling effect on the skin and can help to reduce inflammation.
  • Turpentine Oil - a natural oil that has a warming effect on the skin and can help to increase blood flow.
  • Camphor - a waxy substance that’s commonly used in traditional medicine to relieve pain and inflammation.

It's a potent cocktail of ingredients all designed to help your pain.

How Deep Heat Came to Be

If you're curious about the history of this product, this section is for you. If not, you're welcome to skip to the next.

Deep Heat was first brought to the market in 1956 by a pharmaceutical company called Mentholatum [2].

Albert Alexander Hyde founded The Mentholatum Company, Inc. in the United States in 1889 as a maker of non-prescription healthcare products.

In 1988, Rohto Pharmaceutical Co., a Japanese healthcare company, acquired the company [3].

The product was initially designed for athletes to help relieve muscle pain and stiffness [4]. However, it soon became popular with the general public too.

Since its inception, the Deep Heat recipe has had several updates to make it more safe and effective at treating pain in the back or elsewhere. Today, it's used worldwide.

An infographic covering the key takeaways and data discussed in the article.

Other Heat Rubs: Tiger Balm

Tiger Balm is another popular heat rub that’s similar to Deep Heat. It was developed in the 1870s by a Chinese herbalist named Aw Chu Kin [5]. The product contains a blend of natural ingredients like camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil.

Although both Deep Heat and Tiger Balm are designed to create a sensation of heat to relieve pain, there are some differences between the two products.

Tiger Balm is available in a range of strengths, from extra-strength to ultra-mild, while Deep Heat is typically available in a single strength [6]. Tiger Balm also contains herbal ingredients, while Deep Heat contains synthetic active ingredients.

Tiger Balm is designed to provide pain relief for a variety of conditions, including headaches, joint pain, and muscle soreness. Like Deep Heat, it creates a warming sensation on the skin that helps increase blood flow to the affected area.

While Deep Heat and Tiger Balm are heat rubs designed to alleviate muscle pain, their active ingredients are different. Some people prefer one over the other, so it's up to your needs and preferences.

You'll probably find it more easily than tiger balm in supermarkets and pharmacies in the UK, too. 

However, as with any medication or topical product, it's always best to consult with your healthcare professional to make sure it's right for your situation.

That's especially true for more serious back problems like some that I see in my hospital.

How Deep Heat Affects The Body

Deep heat therapy involves applying heat to the affected area, like the back, to help relieve pain and discomfort. But how exactly does Deep Heat affect the soft tissues in your body? Let's take a closer look.

The Science Behind Deep Heat's Pain Relief

Applying Deep Heat to your back penetrates the skin and reaches the muscles, tissues, and joints underneath. The heat causes blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow to the affected area. That means more oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, and that's how it helps you heal [7].

The increased blood flow also helps to remove waste products too. That means things like lactic acid that can build up in the muscles and cause pain and stiffness.

Because the heat also helps to relax the muscles in the affected area, it reduces tension and improves flexibility.

This can help to reduce muscle spasms and cramps, which can be a common cause of back pain.

What's more, the heat can stimulate the production of endorphins, which are natural painkillers produced by your body.

Those endorphins help to block pain signals from reaching the brain, giving you an extra shot of pain relief [7].

Speaking of painkillers, you can read about tramadol, diazepam and other pharmaceuticals that may help back pain here.

Using Deep Heat For Back Pain

Deep Heat can be an effective treatment for back pain if you use it right. That means it's good to follow the instructions on the product label and don't use it on broken or irritated skin.

You should also avoid using Deep Heat on areas of your body with poor circulation, like the feet, because it can increase the risk of burns [4]. As I mentioned in the beginning, this cream may not be suitable for all types of back pain, such as back pain caused by heartburn.

Another example is if your back pain is caused by inflammation or swelling. If you have sprained muscle or herniated disc, applying heat may worsen your symptoms [8]. In these cases, cold therapy may be a better option.

How Good Is Deep Heat?

These days, there are many products available to help manage pain, including deep heat rubs and heat pads.

Let's compare the two to help you make the right decision.

Does Deep Heat Really Work For Pain?

I know that many doctors feel confident in prescribing Deep Heat as an effective short-term pain reliever, particularly in the muscles and joints. It's evidence-based and can improve circulation and promote healing.

The warming sensation can help to reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation too [4]. According to one study, the use of heat rubs like Deep Heat can even help manage musculoskeletal pain.

If you don't know that word, it just means your bones, joints, and sometimes the tissues around them.

The study found that heat rubs were more effective than placebo in reducing pain and improving physical function. [1]

How Does Deep Heat Compare To Heat Pads?

Heat pads are another popular option for managing pain. While both methods involve applying heat to the affected area, there are some key differences between the two:

  • Method of application: Unlike deep heat rubs, heat pads are applied directly to the affected area and provide a continuous source of heat. [7]
  • Pain relief: It may depend on the type of pain you’ve got. I generally recommend heat pads for chronic pain or ongoing muscle tension, as they provide a sustained source of heat that can help to improve blood flow and promote relaxation [9]. On the other hand, I may recommend heat rubs for acute pain or injuries, as they provide a more intense and immediate warming sensation.
  • Injury or pain location: Deep heat rubs can be helpful for areas that are difficult to reach with a heating pad, like the neck or shoulders. [8]
  • Duration of use: Heat pads can be used for longer periods than Deep Heat. The latter is usually limited to four applications per day.
  • Convenience: Heat pads are more convenient to use, as they can be used anywhere and at any time. Heat pads don't need to be reapplied as frequently as deep heat rubs. They also don't make your hands messy and smell of potent ingredients.

Doctors have individual preferences when it comes to heat pads and Deep Heat. In the past, I've generally managed patients based on their convenience, anatomical location of the injury, and degree and duration of pain.

I recommend heat pads for short-term pain (a few hours to a day) that’s mild to moderate in intensity (up to a pain scale of 6/10). I recommend Deep Heat for short-term pain (days but not weeks) that's mild to moderately severe in intensity (up to a pain scale of 8/10).

Are There Any Risks To Using Deep Heat?

While it's true that Deep Heat can be an effective tool for back pain relief, it's important to use it safely. Overuse of heat rubs can lead to skin irritation or burns, particularly if they're applied directly to the skin without a barrier like clothing or a towel [10].

Also, heat rubs shouldn't be used as a substitute for medical treatment. They are generally safe to use. But it's essential to follow the instructions on the product label and use them as directed.

If you’ve got severe or ongoing pain, it's important to seek the advice of a healthcare professional to determine the underlying cause and create a treatment plan. [6]

Overall, the best option for you will depend on your personal needs and the type of pain you’ve got. If you’re unsure which is right for you, speak with your healthcare professional or physical therapist.

Tips for Optimal Use of Heat Rubs

If you're considering using Deep Heat for pain relief, it's important to know the best way to use it.

Here's a rundown on how, plus who should and who shouldn't use it.

How To Use Deep Heat For Best Results

Here are the steps to follow for the best results:

  • Clean the affected area: Before applying the cream, clean the affected area with soap and water. This will help to remove any dirt or oil that could interfere with your results.
  • Apply the cream: Apply a small amount of the cream to the affected area. Not too much, as this can cause irritation. Massage the cream into the skin until it's fully absorbed.
  • Wash your hands: After applying the cream, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly to remove any residue. It smells bad and may stain your clothes.
  • Wait for the cream to take effect: Deep Heat usually takes 10-15 minutes to take effect. You should start to feel a warming sensation in the affected area.
  • Reapply if necessary: If the pain persists, you can reapply the cream up to four times a day.

Precautions When Using Deep Heat

While Deep Heat is generally safe to use, there are a few precautions you should take:

  • Don't apply the cream to broken or irritated skin.
  • Don't apply the cream near your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Don't use the cream on children under 12 years of age, unless your doctor says it's okay.

A Guide For Specific Demographics

While Deep Heat is generally safe for most people to use, some demographics need to be aware of additional information:

  • Athletes: Athletes who use Deep Heat should avoid applying the cream to areas that are prone to sweating, as this can cause the cream to run into the eyes or mouth.
  • Elderly: Elderly people may be more sensitive to the effects of Deep Heat, so they should apply the cream more carefully.
  • People with sensitive skin: People with sensitive skin should be careful when applying Deep Heat as it can cause skin irritation.

When Not to Use Deep Heat

There are some instances when you should not use Deep Heat:

  • Broken skin: Don't use Deep Heat on broken or irritated skin.
  • Allergic reaction: If you’re allergic to any of the ingredients, don't use it.
  • Pregnancy or breastfeeding: If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor before using Deep Heat, especially if you're seeing any of these back pain red flags.

The Bottom Line: A Doctor's Advice

So, is Deep Heat good for back pain? As a doctor, I would say that it can be a useful tool in managing your symptoms. That said, it's important to use it correctly and in conjunction with other therapies.

First and foremost, get an accurate diagnosis of your back pain. This will help determine the best course of treatment for your specific condition.

Heat can help relieve muscle pain and stiffness, but it's not a cure-all solution. If you do decide to use Deep Heat, make sure to follow the instructions carefully and only apply it to the affected area.

Avoid using it on broken or damaged skin, and be aware that it may not be suitable for everyone. If you follow the points above though, you should be fine.

Complimentary therapies include stretching, exercises such as swimming and physical therapy can be beneficial in managing your back pain.

And, of course, always consult with your doctor or healthcare provider before starting any new treatment regimen.


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