Ruth Waller, 48, a high school principal, used to experience chronic pain from osteoarthritis (OA) in her neck, back and knees. “Used to” is the key. Waller no longer deals with the pain – instead she medicates herself throughout the day.

“I had a lot of stiffness in the morning and soreness after everyday activities like climbing stairs, walking around campus and after working out,” she says. Waller found relief by wearing heat wraps to alleviate her discomfort. “Pain relief begins within a couple minutes of applying a wrap; it begins to warm quickly,” she adds.

Waller participated in a study which showed that patients with knee OA who wore a continuous low-level (104º F) heat wrap for eight hours reported better pain relief on a scale of one to five than those taking placebo and common oral pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).

“A heat wrap probably helps patients by providing a soothing sensory input that masks the pain sensation,” says Sharon Kolasinski, MD, chief of clinical services and director of the rheumatology fellowship program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

Heat wraps may be an appropriate addition to current comprehensive therapy when pain isn’t being controlled, she adds. People who’ve had OA longer may need more than one type of treatment, including education about the disease, counseling on weight loss, exercise, assistive devices, proper footwear, medications and complementary medicine.

While rheumatologists continue to sort out the effectiveness and limitations of low-level heat wraps, Waller will continue to use hers to get through her busy days. “It’s almost a godsend for someone like me because I lead a very active life,” she says.

The study was presented at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Pain Society. ThermaCare heat wraps were used in the study; other brands include Tylenol Precise and Beyond BodiHeat. Many drug and discount retailers offer store brands as well. Some wraps are designed for specific body parts such as neck or hip.