5 Tips for Using Hot Baths to Relax Your Back

An orthopedic spine surgeon shares essential how-to advice on taking baths for back pain.

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There’s no doubt that a bath can be a luxurious self-care experience. But, as it turns out, there’s more than a few medical benefits of hot baths as well. Baths can be surprisingly helpful when it comes to low back pain.

Baths and back painA warm bath can be effective relief for a painful back spasm.

Donald S. Corenman, MD, DC, helps his patients with spinal ailments ranging from degenerative disc disease to nerve compression and everything in between. In addition to recommending surgery to his patients, he also sees the power in at-home remedies, which includes hot baths. Scientific studies suggest hydrotherapy can relieve back pain.

Dr. Corenman says, “Hot baths are muscle-relaxing. They open up the muscles. They allow more blood flow. They clean out lactic acid. They make a muscle that’s really tight and protective relax.”

Here’s what often happens to your back to cause pain. A structure—a nerve, a disc, a vertebral bone or any other piece of tissue—becomes injured, and the muscles around it contract and close in to prevent any more damage. That’s called a muscle spasm. It’s a good thing; it means the damaged tissue is less likely to be injured further.

Problem is, though, muscle spasms can hurt. “The longer someone stands or works, the more the muscle goes under tension and the more they develop those painful symptoms,” explains Dr. Corenman “A hot bath will relax the muscle and take that ache away.”

Want to enhance the benefits of hot baths for back pain even more? Check out these five tips to help relax your back muscles.

1. Use Epsom Salts—or Not

Although Dr. Corenman thinks that Epsom salts or any kind of minerals that dissolve in water can be helpful, he also believes you can take a bath for back pain without Epsom salts.

Epsom saltEpsom salts are optional when you're taking a bath for back pain.

“Most of those are great skin relaxants,” he says. “But honestly, if you have a hot bath with or without [Epsom salts], other than the aroma and feel of the water, it’s not really going to make a big difference. It’s the heat and the floatation that create the benefits for baths.”

2. Plan On a 15- to 20-Minute Soak

How long you stay in a hot bath is really up to you. Dr. Corenman recommends asking yourself, “How long can I stand the heat?”

Hot tubs are typically heated around 102 to 103 degrees, and “people can sit in those for a half hour or more,” Says Dr. Corenman. Most of  us aren’t lucky enough to have a jacuzzi in the bathroom, so keep in mind your regular bath can be a little warmer: 105 or 106 according to Dr. Corenman,

It does depend on how long you can tolerate the heat. Although a bath hot enough to be dangerous is way too hot to soak in (please don’t scald yourself), it’s ok to start off a little on the toasty side. Since the water will cool down, Dr. Corenman says that for most people, “you don’t need more than 15 to 20 minutes maximum.”

As for how many times per week you should take a bath, Dr. Corenman explains that it depends on how severe your back pain is and what types of activities you do. But for most people, three times a week should do it.

People with back pain, says Dr. Corenman, “if they have a construction worker’s job or they’re doing something that’s much more repetitive, they’ll need more baths than if they have a job where they have to sit,” which doesn’t tense the spine as much.

3. Tighten Your Core

Having a strong core will support and protect your spine, but whenever you need some extra protection you’ll have to splint your spine. Here’s how to do it.

Dr. Corenman explains that you need to “contract the back muscles, the side muscles, and the front muscles.” Squeezing these muscles makes your core act like a steel beam that supports the spine when you really need some extra protection.

4. Do Some Stretches

After your bath is a good time to stretch, says Dr. Corenman. He recommends toe touches that loosen tight hamstrings that can strain the lower back, as well as the upward-facing dog pose from yoga. Also from yoga, sun salutations will bring your spine through a wide range of motion, especially when you do them slowly and hold each pose for a few breaths. A long, slow sun salutation or two can feel delicious when your back is nice and relaxed, too.

Stretching after bathUpward-facing dog, alone or as part of a sun salutation, feels great after a warm, relaxing bath.

5. Be Careful Getting Out

Dr. Corenman warns that hot baths might not be a good idea for certain people. He advises sticking to showers if you have “instability in your spine, meaning, the vertebra move more than they’re designed to move.”

He adds, “You have a muscle spasm so you don’t injure a structure. When you come out of a bath, your muscles don’t automatically re-tighten. Those are the people who really have to engage the core to protect their back until their muscles re-adapt again.”

Is a warm bath just not cutting it for your back pain? It might be a sign of something more serious than a muscle spasm. A spine specialist may be able to give you a proper diagnosis. Find one today.

Updated on: 05/27/20
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Donald S. Corenman, MD, DC
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