Ice vs. Heat Therapy for Back Pain

Ice vs. Heat Therapy for Back Pain

Ice or heat: which is best for your back pain? The short answer is that it depends. 

You just finished a workout and are feeling a strain in your back. Or you just lifted something heavy and now have a nagging backache. Or maybe you have chronic back issues and are experiencing pain. All of these three situations may require a different response to the ice versus heat question.

This article delves into the ice/heat debate and provides a comprehensive explanation of which therapy is best for each type of backache you feel.

When Should I Use Ice Therapy for Back Pain?

Ice can be helpful for back pain, but only in certain situations. It’s important to consider what is causing the issues. 

For instance, cold therapy is a good choice if you are experiencing sciatica pain, which is the nerve that begins in the lower back and leads through the buttocks down the legs. If you experience sciatica pain, quickly apply ice to help reduce pain and inflammation. The cold temperatures may also help control the muscle spasms that often come along with sciatica flare-ups. 

While heat therapy can help loosen your muscles prior to a workout, cold therapy is best for a sore back following a tough workout. Ice packs can help ease the tension in your muscles and may even prevent recurrent back pain following an intense workout.

How Do I Apply Ice for Back Pain?

For cold therapy, you have several options — including ice cubes in a zip-top bag, store-bought ice packs, or even a package of frozen vegetables. 

Ice massage involves rubbing the cold compress on the affected part of your back to numb the area and reduce pain. This method combines the benefits of both cold and pressure.

If you’re leaving the ice in place without massage, be sure to protect your skin. Wrap the compress in a thin washcloth or several paper towels so that the ice is not directly on your skin where it can cause harm. Use ice therapy for twenty minutes at a time. 

When Should I Use Heat Therapy for Back Pain?

Heat is helpful for back pain because it dilates blood vessels, which delivers more oxygen, white blood cells, platelets, and essential nutrients to promote healing. If you are experiencing muscle spasms, you may have restricted circulation. Heat restores circulation, relaxes tense muscles, and reduces the pain of muscle spasms. 

Applying heat to your back can also reduce stiffness by improving the ability to stretch the muscles around the spine, improving range of motion and strengthening the core. Once stiffness is reduced, it becomes easier to exercise, particularly the therapeutic stretches and exercises that are the basis for most lower back pain treatments. 

Only so many sensory receptors can actively reach the brain, and when heat is applied, it’s possible to block other receptors, such as those producing the feeling of pain. So heat can indirectly reduce pain. 

Heat helps with relaxation. Reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been measured in the blood following heat therapy, which is why hot towels are used on flights and in spa treatments. 

Any chronic pain that has lasted longer than four weeks can benefit from heat therapy. 

How Do I Apply Heat for Back Pain?

There are numerous ways to apply heat to your back to deal with pain:

  • Hot Bath: The hot water in a bath can ease back pain and other muscle soreness you may be feeling.
  • Hot Water Bottle: Pouring hot water into a hot water bottle and applying it to your pain can be helpful heat therapy. Wrap the bottle in a thin washcloth if it is too hot to hold in your hands.
  • Electric Heating Pad: Heating pads provide a consistent source of heat and typically allow for different heat settings as well as a timer to prevent you from leaving the heat on your back for too long.
  • Adhesive Heat Wraps: Available in pharmacies as well as other stores, you can purchase over-the-counter heat wraps that stick to your skin and provide a low level of heat for several hours. 

Be sure to protect your skin by wrapping the heat source in a washcloth or ensuring the temperature is not too hot. Also, do not leave heat on your back for an extended period of time or it could cause burns. 

When Should I Use Both Heat and Ice Therapy for Back Pain?

Sometimes it’s best to use both heat and ice therapy together to receive the benefits of both. For instance, if back pain is an issue and you’d like to exercise, you can use both heat and cold to stave off potential pain. 

Before you begin your workout, warm your muscles with a compress to prepare them for movement. Ten to fifteen minutes of heat therapy is recommended before your warm-up exercises. 

Following your cool down and stretch after your workout, you can use ice therapy to help prevent soreness. Apply an ice pack immediately after your workout or at the first sign of any pain. 

Both heat and ice therapy are effective in treating acute back pain. If you’ve had pain for less than four weeks or you’ve just injured yourself, you should apply ice to the injury. Cold therapy will constrict the blood vessels, reduce inflammation and swelling, and numb the area. 

After the inflammation has eased, you can then switch to heat, which will improve flexibility and movement of the muscles. Heat therapy will improve circulation of the blood, which will bring nutrients to the injured area and encourage healing. Use heat therapy off and on for several days to receive the maximum benefits.

When Should I See a Chiropractor for Back Pain?

While heat and cold therapy are helpful for treating back pain at home, it’s also wise to go see your chiropractor to deal with the pain, especially recurrent issues or chronic back pain. A chiropractor will be able to diagnose the issue and provide a complete treatment plan. 

Pain can affect your day-to-day living and prevent you from enjoying life to its fullest. Rather than living with the pain, you can take immediate steps toward reducing or removing the pain entirely, allowing you to get back to being pain-free. To begin your chiropractic care for back pain, schedule an appointment with us online or call 256-721-9696 today. 

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for in-person advice or care from a medical professional.