Teaching Tuesday- All About Hot/Cold Therapy Pillows

Today's post is all about yesterday's project. It is a great project, easy to do, very cost effective, and quite useful. But there are a few hints and tips that will make your experience safer and easier, so let's get going, shall we?

 As stated in yesterday's Make It tutorial, you must use a 100% cotton fabric for the bag that is heated, while the pillowcase can be of any fabric. The thread should be cotton as well, if possible, but a blend will work alright most of the time. As for what is inside that bag, the substance that is heated, there are several choices available. Some people use (uncooked, long-grain) rice, some wheat, some buckwheat hulls, others barley, oatmeal, or various types of beans. Some even use flax seed or cherry pits.

I would be cautious in choosing flax seed, as flax consists of  30-40% linseed oil, which can be explosive in the presence of oxygen.  In fact, flax heating bags have been known to explode, so I think it may just be best to choose something else.  

I found several websites, including some fire stations', that warn that wheat is a fire and explosion danger, due to the small grains being susceptible to drying out. This is, in fact, a danger for most fillers. Generally speaking, you can reduce this risk by placing a half glass of water inside the microwave whenever you heat  a therapeutic bag, or at least every few heats. But you also need to be cautious with the water, watching its use closely, as wheat will rot when it gets too moist. While excessive moisture will cause any filler material to rot, wheat takes a lessor amount than other choices. 

Aside from the fact that cherry pits are an expensive filler (they cost at least ten times more than corn, without any evidence of providing greater benefits), their insides are poisonous to children and dogs, should they chew them open.  Also, the innards may soak through the fabric and cause poisoning issues if any of the pits dried out and cracked open. So, to me, this is another ingredient that is best left off the filler list.

Coffee beans are a new twist on old fillers, and are quite aromatic. The problem is that they burn easily, and scorched coffee isn't great smelling. So watch how long you microwave them for, and this is probably not the best choice for bags you are planning on giving away.

Lentils are a less than best choice, as they only hold heat for about twenty minutes, and they naturally contain a lot of moisture which will cause them to rot sooner than other choices. Kidney beans also contain a good deal of moisture and, on top of that, they also have a scent that most people will find unpleasant (when heated).

Some people enjoy mixing herbs, spices, and/or essential oils into fillers. I would NOT recommend using essential oils at all, since they all have different flash points, and microwaves heat unevenly. If you use are going to use herbs or spices, they need to be dried ones, not fresh.  Probably the best way to utilize herbs and/or spices, is to simply make a separate bag for them, adding them to the inside of the grain bag, after the grain bag is heated. This way, the herbs and spices are kept from moisture, yet will still be exposed to the heat (radiating from the grains), which will release their aroma. Try some lavender, rose petals (make sure they are organic or you will be exposed to chemicals), cloves, nutmeg, ginger, rosemary, cinnamon, mint leaves, or even some teas. If you are using a separate herb/spice bag, you can also add essential oils without having to worry about the temperature and/or fire. Just remember that you only need a few drops of an EO or EO blend, otherwise you may be overwhelmed by the smell, which is not very relaxing or therapeutic!

Rice is a very popular filler choice, but it is quite small, and does scorch pretty easily. To avoid this, make sure that it is completely cooled before you reheat it, and don't heat it for too long at any given time. Make sure that you don't use minute rice at all, you need to use the long-grained rice, the kind that you have to cook for a long time. Keep an eye on the rice too. If it is clear instead of white, that means that it is too dry, and that it is a fire hazard. While using water in the microwave will decrease the chances of burning, increased moisture will hasten spoilage. No matter what, rice bags will need to be changed out sooner than some other grains, as it tends to develop a rancid odor over time. Also know that a rice bag won't stay as warm for as long as some other fillers, because it is a smaller grain, with less surface area. Still, many people prefer a rice filler for its softness and mold-ability.  

Perhaps the best filler choice is feed corn. It must be feed corn, or else it will simply pop when heated. One great plus for using feed corn is that it is very inexpensive. Feed and agricultural stores sell it year round for about twenty cents a pound, in 40 or 50 pound bags. In the Fall, Wal-Mart sells it as "deer corn",  in 40 lb bags for under five dollars. While Wal-Mart sells "extra clean" bags, the feed stores tend to contain more materials that you will need to toss. Wherever it comes from, go through it and remove any cob chunks, rocks, or bugs, then proceed to heat it as discussed.  Do be sure to get the whole corn, not cracked corn, which would be a fire hazard.  

No matter what filler you use, there are a few things to keep in mind. First off, any grain can harbor bugs or bug larva. To avoid having anything hatch inside your bag, make sure to follow the heating instructions offered in the tutorial, and be sure to allow the bag to completely cool in between the heating cycles. While this has proven to be sufficient, some people also like to place their chosen grain inside (sealed) plastic bags, and then freeze those bags for three to four days prior to thawing, then heating (per the tutorial directions) the grain. 

Whether you do the freeze and heat or just the heat method, you will still need to change out the filler bag once it gets old. When will that be? That depends upon too many factors to make a blanket statement. Keep your nose on it, and try to ensure that that it dries out in between uses. I have known some who have opened their bags after more than a year, and still have good, in-tact grains, yet others have not even lasted six months. You need moisture at times to keep the grains from drying too much and becoming a fire hazard, yet too much moisture will encourage rotting. So moderation and caution are the words of the day. 

The next issue is storage. Any grain may be attractive to mice, but sometimes even a child or a "good" pet may find your filled bag interesting. You can avoid a torn up bag and any potential choking or poisoning issues by simply storing your unused therapy pillow in a child-proof cabinet. As for the grain itself, once opened, it is best to use all of the container. If you don't, make sure that you put the unused portion inside a sealed container. If there are any bugs or anything ready to hatch, you certainly don't want it crawling out and running around your house. As routine practice, I would microwave the grains as previously instructed, and then place the unused inside a plastic container with a snug lid, just in case. 

Once your filler is chosen, cleaned, properly heated and stuffed into the bag, a pillowcase made if you want one, your therapy pillow is ready to be used. They can be frozen for cold therapy use, or they can be heated for heat therapy. If heated, most of the fillers will be good at 1-2 minutes. But you will need to test to verify the time for your chosen filler. Remember that there is a difference between using the bag on an adult who is awake, alert, and has a normal sense of feeling, and is capable of moving the bag themselves, as opposed to an adult with circulatory issues (including, but not limited to diabetes), mobility issues, and/or cognitive issues. When using on an adult with issues, a child  (do not use on infants) or a pet, be sure to  verify the heat. I would start with cutting the time in half, at minimum. If you heat four cups of corn (in the microwave) for two minutes, it will be between 120 and 140 degrees for the first 15 minutes after it is removed. Even at a minute and a half, it will be between 110-120 degrees, so this is not a toy or something to be taken lightly. It is a therapeutic tool and deserving of your caution and respect.

In a  9 inch (wide) by 11inch (long) bag, filled with four (level) cups of feed corn, you can heat for two minutes maximum, no more than a minute and a half for patients with special circumstance/conditions. This bag will stay warm for an hour or two.  If you use a different amount of corn, or if your bag is a different size, you will need to experiment to see how long to heat it, and how long it lasts.   
If you reheat the bag before it is completely cooled, only microwave for a maximum of one minute.

The grain filled bag should not be washed unless absolutely necessary. This is the main reason why a pillowcase is a great idea. Some grains won't hold up to a wash at all, but the corn bag can. Although frequent washing is not recommended at all, it is okay to freshen your (corn) bag once or twice a year. The best way to clean the corn bag is to scoot all the corn to one side, then carefully wash the fabric on the opposite end of the bag.  Move the corn to the other side and then finish washing the fabric as fast as you can. The idea is to try and keep the corn from getting any wetter than necessary.  To dry the bag, toss it in the microwave for two minutes*, two to three times,  allowing it to completely cool off  in between each heat cycle. *If your corn bag is a different size than the one I described, or if it contains a different amount of corn, use how many minutes you normally use to heat the bag. If your bag is in need of a more all over washing, 
do not wash it any longer than absolutely necessary. Once washed, hang it up to  drip dry on a line for a few hours, then put in the dryer for thirty minutes on the gentle cycle.  When you get it out of the dryer, heat it in the microwave for two minutes, allow it to cool completely, heat for another two minutes, allow to cool and reheat again. Depending upon how much water gets into the corn, it may take more than three times in the microwave. It is important to get rid of all the moisture that is absorbed by the corn during the wash or else the corn will soften and hydrate, which will lead to rotting. Hopefully, most of the moisture will be removed in the dryer, you really don't want to microwave too much and risk    cooking the corn!  

If you are making these hot/cold therapy packs for gifts, make sure that you include instructions for heating and for cleaning. Also be sure to warn them about  the consequences of overheating. You certainly don't want them to think that if two minutes is good, four is better, only to be calling the fire department in five minuets! If a fire does start, exercise extreme caution, even after putting it out. 
In at least one case, a therapy bag that had caught fire and was extinguished, was left outside on a porch, only to reignite and burn the porch down.

Warnings aside, this bag can be a wonderful, therapeutic tool, and a great gift idea. Just be smart and follow the tips and directions.