R.I.P, my heating pad

c. 1980–2016.

Oddly, I never came up with a name for it.

Back when my bad back was first diagnosed, my parents bought me a Dreamland Heating Pad. Wrapped in a fluffy outer cover, this thing soothed my back muscles and has been my primary source of therapy for about 36 years.

Even to this day, I’m prescribed some pretty hefty medication to try to calm my chronic back pain, yet forced to make a choice between a few shots from the large bottle of morphine syrup (which I pre-mix with Grape Kool-Aid powder) I keep next to my bed and a couple of hours on that heating pad, I’d go with electricity over opiates each and every time. Of course, I’d usually opt for both.

The outer cover was quickly discarded, and with only a thin tee-shirt and a thinly-quilted mat separating me from red hot nichrome wires with 240V coursing though them, I would lie on this pad for hours… literally hours. Three or four hours at a time. I’d get up and look at my back in the mirror to see red griddle lines that’d last at least until the morning.

This thing was the kind of thing Dame Thora Hird would deliver public safety announcements about during Countdown to avoid widespread pensioner death by char-broiling. It had no safety cut-out and became painfully hot in seconds. No 15 minute shut-off, and (from what I can tell) absolutely no waterproofing or double-insulation. There’s no safety mark, no CE, no kitemark.

After three-and-a-half decades, probably thousands of pounds of electricity and a carbon footprint the size of Wales (flattened out) it’s also not in the best of nick: being electrical, you see, it’s never actually been washed. It has marinated over the years in my body sweat, along with spilled Diet Pepsi, various mentholated pain relief gels, chocolate (I hope) and probably some blood. I must admit now that once or twice when my “lower half” was sore and numb from cycling, it would end up slightly further down than normal, but I swear only for recovery purposes.

Oddly, it’s never actually been smelly, thanks to liberal dousings in various industrial solvents, including at least one that’s now considered highly carcinogenic — Dad being a chemistry teacher of the old school, of course.

The outer casing of the control box seemed to be held together by security screws that I think might not even have been metric thread, and the once-off-white case leached to a yucky yellow from degraded brominated flame retardant, and the once-bright neon lamp never seemed quite as bright.

Anyway, after a sterling performance keeping me warm while sitting in a house with no front windows, an open front door and no central heating on Friday, and its now-regular Sunday night shift relieving my muscles after horsing around with my daughter over the weekend, the neon lamp would barely flicker this morning. No heat. A valiant effort by me and my Dad with power drills (for the weird screws), soldering delicate nichrome with tin-lead solder, and finally figuring out how to put the damn thing back together that I can report its demise. No heroic measures were taken, and the pad was peacefully put out of its misery (in the wheelie bin)

Problem is, no-one’s brave enough to manufacture these things anymore, or anything like them. The European and American markets pussy out of the risk of barbecuing the elderly (the main target audience) so the current limp-willed products available lackadaisically waft a couple of volts across an element, wrapped in presumably some sort of NASA-grade ceramic foam insulation for a maximum of half an hour (if you’re lucky) in the hope that a joule or two might transition the mattress-thick insulation by the time the timer cuts off. I’d hack it to repeatedly power-cycle the pad, but the clever electronics get in the way, demanding a subsequent ten button pushes to authorise another blast, once the oh-so-helpful “ping” sound reminds me why it sucks so badly.

You know, the hope that I’d be able to buy an unregulated three-phase 415V industrial-grade granny-frying pad might actually occur to me as a possible benefit of Brexit, if only the UK wasn’t so capable of being a nanny state on it’s own.

Next step, buying a bunch of the wuss-pads and seeing if I can weave their elements together somehow. Either that, or I’m making a blanket of a matrix of plastic tubes and plumbing it onto the radiator.


Dreamland Heating Pad, died in my sleep, Cambridge, 21 November 2016.

Update, March 2017

After buying and returning five modern Dreamland heating pads from Amazon and “Silvercrest” knock-offs from Lidl that’d work half-heartedly for an hour and then permanently fail, I gave in and bought a “UTK Far Infrared Natural Jade Heating Pad”, just to see if it worked.

Conventional pads use electric heating coil and emit high levels of electromagnetic radiation. Such products only heat your skin, while our unique pads with enhanced therapeutic benefits, penetrate 200–300 times deeper into your body without exposure to electromagnetic radiation. This Healing Pad features far-infrared heat, negative ions and natural jade. When the jade is heated, it emits far-infrared heat that penetrates deep into your body and has the following benefits; relieves pain, improves blood circulation, reduces tension and stress and improves flexibility.

The effects of “Far Infra-Red” on the body don’t convince me, and I really don’t believe a lot of the other pseudoscience in the description, such as claims about not being exposed to electromagnetic radiation — a little contradictory, as infra-red (far or otherwise) is electromagnetic radiation…

From what I can tell, there are potential effects of FIR on the body, but this product does nothing to convince me that it delivers those effects. In short, I don’t believe (or disbelieve, for that matter) that it works any differently from conventional heating pads.

Regardless, I was ready to try anything. I’d considered buying aftermarket “carbon fibre” car seat heating inserts, but the effort of packaging them into something I could safely use in bed was just too much. I was really just looking for a well-engineered heating pad that would last, and deliver enough heat to make a difference to my back pain.

Well, it really delivers a lot of heat. It’s far more powerful than the other pads I’ve had, and the jade stones do seem to concentrate that heat nicely. For a start, I can’t actually bear to use it at full power, so that’s definitely a good sign.

Size-wise, it’s just right. I was worried that it’d be too small and I’d need to fork out for the medium size, but it turns out it’s just fine. Construction seems sound: the stones are held in with mesh pockets, and the stitching looks solid. It seems to be made to last.

The hardware is pretty clunky, mind you… more than reminiscent of the old eighties-era Dreamland that died, it actually looks older. There’s a large, thick grey plastic lump in one corner where the cable plugs in, which usually sits uncomfortably under my shoulder-blade. The handset has the appearance of Soviet engineering, and again is unnecessarily clunky. It’s a shame that this product has had such little thought put into the user interface… I see no reason a much smaller, thinner plug and socket couldn’t have been used.

It’s surprisingly heavy — unsurprisingly, I guess, as it’s covered in 54 lumps of stone, but being quite thick and solidly constructed, I reckon it’d be heavy without the stones. Now, rather than the gridiron effect, I get up after three hours with a pattern of disc-shaped marks on my back that makes it look like I’ve badly sunburned under a Connect Four. But, my back is cooked “medium”, if not “well-done”, and it shows no sign of failing.

I’ve no idea if the fabled Far Infra-Red therapy is doing anything for me, but the thing certainly belts out enough raw heat. No-one makes them exactly like they used to, but sew some jade crystal woo to it and talk about nonsense deep energy things and apparently you can get away with frying human flesh again.

It’s far more brutal than the venerable old Dreamland I grew up with, and I do feel unfaithful, but what can I do? That ragged quilted mess was dragged around with me from home to school, to university and beyond. It took me through my career, through personal relationships and three major surgeries. At one point you have to move on.

Ah, well.

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