When the back feels hotter than the rest of the body, it can be alarming, especially if the heat appears suddenly or there are no other symptoms.
Occasionally having a hot back is not likely to be a cause for concern. Some people simply feel warmth more than others. However, if it is bothersome, occurs frequently, or happens alongside other symptoms, it may be due to a medical problem.
In many cases, a person may have a problem with either the skin or the nerves in the back or spine. Most of these issues are treatable.
In this article, learn about the possible causes of a hot back, common accompanying symptoms, and treatment options.
Sometimes the back feels hot to the touch. When this happens, the problem may be with the skin. Other symptoms that a person might notice include:
- irritated, red, or discolored skin
- swollen, peeling skin
- intense pain in or underneath the skin
- a fever
- muscle aches
Some people describe back pain that feels like burning, searing, or pinpricks to the skin. This pain may be the only symptom, but other symptoms sometimes appear, such as:
- numbness or tingling in the back
- heat or electrical sensations that radiate elsewhere, such as to the arms or down the legs
- pain in the stomach, chest, or throat
Possible causes of an unusually hot back include:
Nerve pain is the most common cause of warm, burning, tingling back pain.
While muscle pain causes tension, soreness, and a dull or sharp ache, nerve pain causes unusual sensations, such as:
- a hot feeling
- shooting pain
- sudden jolts that feel like electric shocks
The hot sensation is a type of neurological pain. An injured or compressed nerve cannot send a normal signal, so the body may interpret the sensation as heat.
People with diabetes can develop a type of nerve pain called diabetic neuropathy. High blood glucose and triglyceride levels can damage the nerves over time, causing unusual or painful sensations, including numbness, tingling, and burning.
The most common type of neuropathy — peripheral neuropathy — affects the feet and hands. However, some people develop focal neuropathy, which damages or traps single nerves, often in the torso, hand, leg, or head.
Radiculopathy is pain resulting from the compression or inflammation of a spinal nerve or damage to it. Radiculopathy can cause pain anywhere in the back. The pain follows a specific, consistent pattern, though it may get worse with time.
Sciatica is a common type of radiculopathy that compresses the sciatic nerve, which travels down the back of the hip and into the leg.
It can cause low back pain, as well as a shocking or burning sensation that radiates down to the buttocks and into the leg.
During periods of hot weather, the sun can burn any exposed skin. The back and upper shoulders can easily burn when a person wears a bathing suit or tank top.
Sunburn often feels hot to the touch, and it may also cause burning, tingling pain. The skin may turn red and peel.
Some medications — including retinoids and salicylic acid, sulfonamides, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and some diuretics — increase the risk of sunburn. Most sunburns heal on their own, but they can be very painful and increase a person’s risk of skin cancer.
Severe sunburn can cause blistering, dehydration, fever, and other dangerous symptoms. A person with a severe sunburn may need medical treatment.
Skin infections can cause the skin to feel hot to the touch due to inflammation as the body attempts to fight the infection.
A person with a skin infection may notice swelling, pain near the affected area, and redness. Serious skin infections may cause fever or flu-like symptoms.
Cellulitis is an infection of the deeper layers of skin that often causes the skin to feel warm. It occurs when bacteria enters a wound. The wound may be very small, such as from shaving or a spider bite, or very large. In many cases, red or dark streaks extend out of the wound.
Cellulitis can be dangerous if a person does not receive treatment, as it may cause a systemic infection called sepsis.
A person with symptoms of cellulitis needs medical treatment, including antibiotics. In some cases, a hospital stay may be necessary.
Heartburn happens when the contents of the stomach, especially stomach acid, leak back up the esophagus. It can happen after a person has a large or very acidic meal. Heartburn is also a common symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which causes the stomach’s contents to leak upward regularly.
Most people feel heartburn pain in the center of the chest or throat, but severe cases of heartburn may also cause pain that radiates to the back. A person may experience a burning feeling in the middle of the upper back.
Kidney stones are pebble-like particles that form in the kidneys, usually when levels of minerals such as calcium are too high in the urine. Some people also get kidney stones during a urinary tract infection.
Kidney stones can be intensely painful and cause a sharp pain in the lower back, usually on one side. Although most people describe the pain as a severe ache, some say that it feels hot.
The pain may radiate to the groin. While passing a kidney stone, a person may feel burning in the groin or lower back, as well as intense cramping.
The type of treatment for a hot sensation in the back depends on the cause. A person should see a doctor if the pain is intense or unbearable, or if it occurs with other symptoms, such as a fever or general feelings of illness.
It is important to go to the emergency room or see a doctor within a few hours if there are symptoms of:
- kidney stones
- cellulitis or an infected wound
- a severe sunburn
A doctor may prescribe antibiotics for an infection. A person with a serious sunburn may need intravenous (IV) fluids. A doctor can also prescribe medication to help with the pain.
Heartburn usually responds well to over-the-counter antacids. Some people find that eating smaller or less acidic meals reduces the frequency of heartburn.
However, a person who experiences frequent or very painful heartburn should see a doctor, as severe heartburn could signal a more serious problem, such as GERD. Prescription GERD medications can help with chronic symptoms.
Kidney stones often pass on their own, but a doctor can offer medication to help with the pain. When a kidney stone does not pass or the pain is unbearable, a doctor may perform surgery to remove the stone.
About 80–90% of sciatica cases heal without surgery. Heat, cold packs, and exercise may help as the body heals. Stretching and physical therapy can also be beneficial. If the pain is unbearable, a doctor may offer spinal injections.
For some people, however, sciatica gets worse or does not improve on its own. If symptoms last longer than 3 months, a doctor may recommend surgery to relieve pressure on a trapped nerve.
Treatment for diabetic nerve pain begins with better control of a person’s blood glucose. Some medications may help with pain and numbness. A person may also find that physical therapy provides symptom relief and gives them better function.
Burning pain in the back can be concerning, but it is almost always treatable. It can be difficult to diagnose the cause based on the hot sensation alone, so if the symptom persists, it is best to see a doctor.
Prompt treatment almost always improves the outlook and can increase a person’s chances of making a full recovery.