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A heating pad is one of those items that you don't realize is missing from your life until you need it.
Whether it's for chronic pain, relaxation, or a cozy warm-up up on those cold nights, a heating pad can make a real difference in your overall quality of life.
Once you've decided to buy one, you might be wondering what sort of heating pad you need and which model is right for you.
With hundreds of options on the market, it can get a bit overwhelming.
But at BestReviews, we're here to help.
We've combed the aisles looking for the best heating pads so you don't have to.
We never accept free products from manufacturers. We pride ourselves on our honest, unbiased reviews. We want to be your go-to site for trustworthy product reviews and recommendations.
Denise has a background in healthcare and physical therapy. She also has the unique experience of raising three boys. Through the years, she has coached her sons and many of their friends through their share of childhood health problems and accidents. When not helping others recover from their injuries, you may find Denise working in her garden or reading.
If you need pain relief on the go — for instance, while you're at work — a single-use chemical heating pad is an excellent option.
The majority of people who buy heating pads do so to treat pain, whether chronic, recurring, or just occasional. However, some people use heating pads simply to help them to relax after a long day. Others like them because they provide a great warm-up when it’s cold out.
A general rule of thumb is that if you’re feeling a dull and constant ache/pain, a heating pad would probably help. If you’re feeling sharp pain that comes and goes, however, a heating pad would probably be of little use.
As noted above, heating pads can help relieve pain, but not all kinds of pain. These are some of the types of pain that might be helped by a heating pad:
The muscular soreness that occurs after overexertion can be quelled by a heating pad. For instance, you might rest your back or legs against a heating pad after vigorous exercise.
Certain kinds of back pain can be relieved with a heating pad.
A heating pad can soothe the stiff and painful joints that accompany osteoarthritis and some other conditions.
Most kinds of cramps and spasms can be improved with a heating pad. This includes neuropathic spasms, restless leg syndrome, and menstrual cramps.
Heating pads can help relieve many kinds of "all over" pain and sensitivity, including pain related to fibromyalgia, drug withdrawal, and vitamin D deficiency.
Some types of pain should definitely not be treated with heat. This including burns, fresh wounds, infections, and anything that involves inflammation. (Cold may help with inflammation.)
The majority of heating pads provide dry heat. Essentially, this just means the pad heats up but isn't wet or moist in any way.
However, a heating pad like the PureRelief XL can provide moist heat in addition to dry heat. The “moist heat” function varies between models, but often, the product includes a sponge that can be moistening and inserted into the pad.
Why would a person want moist heat instead of dry? Here are a few reasons:
Moist heat is less likely to dehydrate the skin.
Moist heat penetrates more deeply under the skin, so it's good for deep muscle pain.
Choosing a heating pad with a moist heat option is a good idea if you're buying it to help with pain relief, but it’s an unnecessary feature if you just want the pad for warming up or relaxation.
Various heating pad types populate the market, all of which offer their own set of pros and cons. Below, we analyze the characteristics of electric, microwavable, and chemical heating pads.
These are the “gold standard” of heating pads. An electric pad is what you need if you have a chronic condition that requires regular heat relief.
Depending on the make and model, an electric heating pad can provide dry heat, moist heat, or both.
An electric pad with built-in temperature controls allows you to tailor the level of heat to your personal needs. As such, it’s more versatile than some other types.
Although electric heating pads are highly effective, some people worry about plugging it into a socket. But if you're careful it shouldn't pose a risk.
As the name suggests, these heating pads are warmed up in the microwave. The Thermalon Microwave Activated Moist Heat Pad in our product matrix is an excellent example of this technology.
Microwavable pads are generally filled with thermal microbeads or natural materials like wheat grain. They heat up in the microwave and retain their heat for a number of hours.
This type of pad is very affordable.
Microwavable heating pads make great alternatives to hot water bottles. However, a microwavable pad doesn’t pack the same therapeutic punch as a good electric heating pad.
These are small heating pads that warm up via a chemical reaction which is achieved by breaking them, shaking them, or exposing them to air. The Beyond BodiHeat Original gets its power from air exposure.
These products typically take about 20 minutes to heat up fully.
Once heated, the pad can be applied directly to your skin or to the outside of your first layer of clothing. Where you place the pad depends on the make and the amount of heat the pad puts out.
The great thing about these pads is that you can adhere them to your problem body part and then proceed to work, the grocery store, or wherever you’re headed — and you’ll experience pain relief as you go.
The downside to chemical heating pads is that they can get expensive after awhile, especially if you need to use them daily.
Chemical heating pads are not reusable. If you want an environmentally friendly product, you may wish to look elsewhere.
While you can't fine-tune the temperature of microwavable and chemical heating pads, every electric heating pad we've examined offers some kind of temperature control.
Basic models like the Sunbeam 756-500 Heating Pad tend to have only three settings: low, medium, and high. However, high-end models usually offer more sophisticated temperature controls.
If you want total control over your temperature settings, we recommend the Chattanooga Theratherm Digital Moist Heating Pad. This heating pad allows you to key in any temperature of your choosing between 88° F and 166° F.
Automatic shut-off, or auto shut-off, is a safety feature built into many electric heating pads. It basically means that the pad will turn off after a designated amount of time. For instance, the PureRelief XL has a two-hour shut-off feature, so it will switch itself off after that amount of time.
Some users might find auto shut-off frustrating, but you can switch the pad right back on again if you're still using it, and this feature greatly reduces the risk of fire — especially if you like to use your heating pad while falling asleep.
The Sunbeam heating pad on our shortlist does not have an auto shut-off feature; it’s a simple product with a low price. The PureRelief XL does have auto shut-off, but it also costs a lot more.
You need some sort of material layer between yourself and the heating pad to avoid scalding. If it’s to be pressed directly against your skin, you probably want it to be a soft material.
Reusable heating pads typically have covers made of a material such as fleece or flannel. For example, the Chattanooga Theratherm is housed inside a flannel cover that, according to the manufacturer, draws moisture from the atmosphere and releases it to the body for an deeper therapeutic experience.
Perhaps even more appealing, for some, is the PureRelief XL’s comforting microplush material. This heating pad also offers a moist heat option.
Before buying, check to see if your chosen heating pad has a removable cover. Most do, but it's worth double-checking, as you'll want to remove the cover to wash it at some point.
If you're using a heating pad for pain relief, look for one that's totally flexible so that it can mold to the contours of your problem areas or be wrapped around aching limbs.
Cord length is a fairly important consideration if you want an electric heating pad. If you have a short cord, you either have to sit very close to a power socket or fiddle with an extension cord.
The PureRelief XL has a nine-foot cord, which should be ample for most users. Of course, if you go for a microwavable or chemical heating pad, you don't need a cord at all. This would certainly give you more physical flexibility during a therapeutic session.
The size of heating pad you'll need depends on what you need it for.
If it's just for warming up or relaxation, a small model would probably keep you satisfied. The same holds true if you want to use it to treat a small area of pain, such as a wrist or knee.
However, if you want to be able to wrap it around your whole torso or lay it down the full length of your spine, you'll need to look for one of a sufficient size.
The largest of our top heating pad picks is the Thermalon Microwave Activated Moist Heat Pad in size "large," which measures 14" by 27".
The cost of a heating pad can vary wildly depending on its type, quality, size, and features.
$10 to $20 will get you a decent microwavable heating pad or a small, basic electric heating pad with dry heat only.
$25 to $30 will get you 24 single-use chemical heating pads or a medium-sized electric heating pad with moist or dry heat options.
$30 to $40 will get you a large moist or dry electric heating pad with six or more heat settings. The PureRelief XL, with its six temperature settings, falls in this category.
$60+ will get you a top-of-the-line, extra-large heating pad with fully customizable temperature controls.
Q. Are heating pads safe to use?
A. There are some safety concerns related to heating pads, particularly electric ones, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't use them. Follow these tips to stay safe when using your heating pad.
Don't fall asleep using an electric heating pad unless it has an auto shut-off function.
Look out for charred spots or frayed wires. Replace the product if you notice these types of problems.
Never heat a microwavable heating pad for longer than the specified time or on a setting higher than prescribed.
Keep heating pads away from any highly combustible materials, especially when on the highest setting.
Q. Which type of heating pad is best?
A. There's no single “best” type of heating pad. You need to find one that’s best for you.
If you're looking for pain relief at home, an electric heating pad would likely be the most effective choice. If you just want to warm up or to enhance relaxation, we recommend a microwavable heating pad.
Q. How does heat relieve pain?
A. Heat has long been used to relieve certain types of pain. When you apply heat to an area of the body, it dilates the blood vessels, allowing more oxygen and essential nutrients to get through. This can speed up the healing process.
Heat also helps the skin's pain receptors decrease the pain signals sent to the brain, resulting in less pain felt.
Finally, heat encourages soft tissues and muscles to stretch, which can help with stiffness and muscle pain.
Women suffering the aches and pains of pregnancy may wish to use a heating pad, but a pregnant woman should avoid raising her body temperature above 102.2° F at all times. Most experts agree that short-term, partial-body exposure to a heating pad (excluding the abdomen) is safe if it doesn’t raise the body temperature above this level.