Obstetricians and midwives routinely caution against the use of hot tubs during pregnancy, so it is understandable that women may worry about other heat sources during pregnancy, including heating pads.
Particularly in the third trimester as ligaments shift and the weight of the uterus increases, many women experience back and abdominal pain. It is usually okay to use a heating pad for brief periods, and it may be safer than other pain relievers, such as ibuprofen.
In this article, we discuss when it is safe to use a heating pad, where women can use it on their bodies, and the benefits and risks. We also look at other pain relief options that people can use during pregnancy.
Is it safe to use a heating pad while pregnant?
Women should only use a heating pad for around 10 minutes at a time.
Some women worry about using heating pads during pregnancy because a high body temperature can harm the developing baby. When a woman’s body temperature increases, the baby’s temperature can rise too. Significant increases in temperature can cause birth abnormalities.
As long as a heating pad does not raise the woman’s core body temperature, it should be safe to use. People should avoid using heating pads overnight or while sleeping, when they may not notice temperature shifts. Consider using a heating pad for brief periods, such as 10 minutes or less.
A 2011 study linked the use of hot tubs during early pregnancy to neural tube abnormalities. The neural tube is the structure that eventually forms the brain and spinal cord; any damage to the neural tube can cause brain damage and other serious complications. The study found that regular use of hot tubs was especially dangerous.
Although no large, recent studies have directly tested the safety of heating pads during pregnancy, they are unlikely to raise a person’s core body temperature and are a routine part of pain relief during pregnancy.
A 2013 study concluded that combining several treatments at once, such as aerobic exercise, heating pads, and chiropractic care, was effective for pain relief. The study did not note any adverse outcomes associated with heating pads.
If any form of heat feels painful or uncomfortable, do not use it.
Using a heating pad on the belly and back
Pregnancy can cause back or belly pain.
Many women have concerns about using a heating pad on the belly or back, which are typical locations for pain.
There is no evidence to suggest that using heating pads on the belly or back for brief periods is dangerous. Many doctors recommend low heat for back, hip, or pelvic pain. However, always speak to a doctor before applying heat to the belly or back.
To minimize any potential risks to the developing baby:
- Limit the use of heating pads in the first trimester as this may be the riskiest time to raise the body temperature.
- If using a heating pad makes anyone feel too hot, overheated, or causes sweating, stop using it.
- Apply the heating pad for 10 minutes or less.
- If the baby’s behavior changes, such as increasing or decreasing movement, stop using the heating pad.
- Avoid using multiple sources of heat. For example, do not use a hair drier and heating pad at the same time as it is more difficult to control the heat and makes it harder for the body to cool down.
- Avoid using a hot tub, sauna, or very hot shower to relieve pain.
- Anyone who is bleeding or leaking amniotic fluid should not use a heating pad unless they get permission from a healthcare professional.
Benefits of heating pads
Heating pads might be a viable alternative to over-the-counter pain relievers. Anyone choosing to use pain relievers during pregnancy should speak to a doctor about the best kinds of medication to use.
Heat can help promote healing of minor injuries. Heat can also:
- increase circulation
- prevent or reduce painful muscle spasms
- improve mobility in stiff muscles
- offer temporary pain relief
Women should avoid using heat if they have an open wound, the area is numb, or during a fever.
Some women may find more relief by alternating hot and cold packs. Talk to a doctor before applying ice directly to the stomach or back.
Other pain relief options
Meditation and gentle stretching may ease pain during pregnancy.
Those who get no relief from heating pads can try some other options. Common prescription medications for chronic pain is likely to be safe during pregnancy, according to a review published in 2010.
Research consistently shows that acetaminophen is safe during pregnancy, but data on other over-the-counter medications are mixed. At different stages of pregnancy, some over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, may not be safe.
Other pain relief options include:
- Massage. The weight of the uterus can change a woman’s posture and way of walking, leading to widespread muscle tension. Gentle massage can loosen tense muscles and help with widespread pain and tension.
- Relaxation exercises. Deep breathing, mindfulness, and other relaxation strategies may help to relieve pain. These exercises can also help with stress-related muscle tension.
- Alternative remedies. Some people experience relief with complementary treatments, such as acupuncture.
- Exercise and stretching. Exercise is generally safe during pregnancy. Physical activity may help relieve pain, prevent muscle stiffness, and reduce the risk of pregnancy-related complications, such as gestational diabetes.
Anyone considering treatment options such as massage or acupuncture should make sure they thoroughly research practitioners to find someone who is trained in prenatal methods and is comfortable treating women who are pregnant. A doctor may be able to offer recommendations on this.
Every pregnancy is different, so anyone who is concerned about using heat to relieve pain should talk to a doctor or midwife first.
Some women may have other risk factors, such as a high body temperature due to an infection or a risk of preterm labor, which make a heating pad unsafe.
However, in most situations, a heating pad offers safe, quick relief from the aches and pains pregnancy brings.
Is it safe to have a hot bath or hot shower while pregnant?
Generally, recommendations include taking a ‘warm’ bath or shower to avoid raising your core temperature, which could affect your developing baby. You should feel comfortable while showering or bathing, making sure that the water is not so hot that you feel flushed or begin sweating. Some doctors recommend spending no more than 10 minutes in a hotter-temperature bath.
Holly Ernst, PA-C
Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.