Is heat or ice better for back pain? Surprisingly, the answer is both.
The decision of whether or not to use heat or ice for you back pain depends on what is causing that pain. Different causes require different cures and using the wrong one can actually make the pain worse.
Read on to find tips on how to apply heat or ice properly to achieve their maximum benefit.
Heat Things Up
When, why, and how to use heat for back pain are all essential questions. Getting the right answers is the difference between relief and aggravation of back pain.
How NOT to Use It
Careful consideration needs to be given regarding how hot heat therapy needs to be. It should really be called warming therapy since warm is considered to be the ideal temperature for relieving pain. Skin and other soft tissues can be damaged by too much heat.
If your pain is caused by inflammation however, heat therapy can actually exacerbate the issue. That is why heat therapy should be used carefully. When in doubt, consult your physician.
Furthermore, those with peripheral vascular disease or diabetes should generally avoid heat therapy.
How to Use It
Chronic pain and aches, minor muscular pain, tense muscles are the kinds of pain for which heat therapy is generally recommended. Sore backs and stiff necks are often problems people treat with heat.
Tense muscles relax and pain often lessens from the warming of heat therapy. In addition, heat therapy can reduce muscle spasms and improve circulation.
There are a myriad of avenues to applying heat therapy to relieve back pain:
- Reusable gel packs
- Heat wraps
- Heating pads
- Saunas & Steam rooms
- Electrical current
People who suffer chronic back pain often choose to use heat wraps that offer all day relief and can be worn beneath their clothing. Others find soaking in warm whirlpools, swimming pools, and baths helpful for muscular back pain.
The type of heat and form of application of that heat are factors that rely on the location of the pain, cause of the pain, personal preferences, and professional recommendations.
Generally, these treatments are used for somewhere between fifteen minutes to a couple of hours. The benefits of these treatments however, can linger long after the treatment itself has ended.
Electrical current and ultrasound are the only two methods that provide heat that goes deep into the tissues that are in pain. The remaining treatments listed treat back pain on a superficial level only, meaning that they provide treatment to the outside of one’s body but not into the deep tissues.
Ice It Down
Just as the cause, type, presentation of your back pain can indicate heat for treatment so can those same guidelines indicate that ice is needed to treat back pain.
When/How to Use It
Strains, sprains, and other injuries often use ice as part of the initial treatment that happens right after injury. It is also recommended for areas that are inflamed – red, swollen, warm to the touch, and more likely than not, painful.
Application of ice treatments are generally limited to 15 or 20 minutes at a time. It is commonly applied for 4 to 6 times during the first 48 hours after a soft tissue injury occurs, to reduce inflammation and swelling.
During those two days, rest and inactivity is recommended in conjunction with the ice therapy.
When/How NOT to Use It
Like heat therapy, using ice therapeutically can cause more harm than good if done wrong.
Ice packs should never directly come into contact with the skin. Always cover the ice pack with a thin towel or cloth to ensure that it does not come into direct contact with your skin. Applying an ice pack directly to the skin – or for extended periods of time – can result in tissue damage.
It may even lead to frostbite if left for too long!
The Bottom Line
Whether you use ice or heat to treat your back pain depends on what sort of injury or condition is causing the pain. Using the wrong one can often lead to worse pain and further injury.
If you have chronic pain such as that caused by arthritis or minor muscle pain then heat therapy may help you to feel better sooner. However, if you have a pain caused by inflammation or due to new injuries, it is better to use ice.
Always check with
your medical practitioner before beginning any course of treatment.