With the recent warnings about the potential dangers of chronic use of oral pain medications,oral pain medications, doctors and patients have been looking for alternative treatment options, says researcher Bill McCarberg, MD, the founder of the Chronic Pain Management Program for Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, Calif.
"For the first time, we have clinical evidence that heat wrap therapy can significantly reduce osteoarthritis pain." McCarberg presented his study results at the annual meeting of the American Pain Society in Boston.
Heat Wrap vs. Medication
In the study 110 people with kneeosteoarthritis,knee osteoarthritis, one group wore heat wraps on their painful knee for eight hours a day for three consecutive days. A second group wore an unheated wrap.
Those with the heated wrap reported less knee pain and greater flexibility. The heat wraps used in the study were ThermaCare HeatWraps. ThermaCare paid for the research.
In addition, people who wore the heat wrap also reported more knee pain relief than people who took acetaminophen (Tylenol). The heat wrap group also had more flexibility than those who took ibuprofen. The heat wraps were comparable to ibuprofen in terms of knee pain relief.
When it came to knee function, such as tests of sitting down, standing up, and walking 50 feet without pain, the heat wraps and medication did not appear to be any more effective than a placebo. Heat wraps have also been shown to provide more long-lasting relief for low back painmore long-lasting relief for low back pain than over-the-counter pain relievers.
Osteoarthritis, the wear-and-tear form of the disease, affects an estimated 20.7 million Americans, mostly after age 45, and is responsible for more than 7 million visits to the doctor per year, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Eighty percent of people with osteoarthritis report some form of limitation in movement or activities.
Heat Wraps Are Worth a Shot
Dennis C. Turk, PhD, an anesthesiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, tells WebMD that as a scientist, he wants to see more thorough studies of the heat wraps to determine their effectiveness.
But "as a clinician, [the heat wrap] is noninvasive and other than the cost, there are no known side effects, so what do you have to lose if you try it out?" he asks. ThermaCare's heat wraps cost about $6.99 for a box of two knee pads.
Turk says that he occasionally recommends wrapping a bag of frozen peas in a towel and placing it on a painful body part for 10 minutes. "If it doesn't help, nothing is lost," he says. "It's the same thing for any of these heat wraps, but they are not a replacement for [your medication or any other treatment] and you should discuss it with your physician."