Is It Best To Use Ice Or Heat To Treat Your Lower Back Pain?

Using ice or heat for lower back pain can be a cheap and easy form of self-treatment. But beware as using either at the wrong times could actually make your pain worse!

I'm sure we've all experienced using some form of ice or heat to take the edge off our back pain before. 

Whether that is simply having a nice hot bath or ​laying down on a pack of frozen peas, the relief that follows is a great feeling. 

And these are both cheap and easy options for you to self-treat your back pain.​ 

However it can be confusing to know which method works best. 

​And it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking it's simply a case of personal preference as to which one is best for you to use. 

But this is not the case. 

Because while using ice or heat can help your back pain. 

Using either one for the wrong type of back pain can cause you even more pain and discomfort. ​

​For instance, did you know that using ice at the wrong times can actually increase muscle stiffness and tightness? 

While using heat at the wrong times can make inflammation worse and leave you in even more pain?

No?​

Well read on to discover just when to use ice and heat and make sure you are treating your back pain in the correct way.​

When Should You Use Ice To Treat Back Pain?

It was the straw coloured box that broke the camel smoker's back.

Ice is great for treating newly acquired back injuries.

So if you put your back out lifting something heavy, suffer whiplash from an accident, or rip or tear a muscle in your back, icing it is your best bet.​

This is because the ice reduces the inflammation and swelling ​that occurs in new injuries, speeding up the healing process.

​And this will also dull the pain you feel in your back, while reducing any tissue damage.

So great news all round.​

However you need to be aware that this is only the case for fresh injuries and those that have inflammation.

Because icing chronic and recurring back injuries that have no inflammation can actually cause you more damage.

It can increase feelings of muscle tightness and stiffness and make your back pain worse!

​And as inflammation is rarely a cause of chronic lower back pain, you need to ensure that you only use ice when you feel you have actually injured your back due to a specific event.

This can be hard to do at times, because even recurring back pain can feel like a fresh back ​strain (and swelling is hard to spot).

However before reaching for the peas, ask yourself the following:​

  • Did the pain strike you suddenly as the result of something you did?
  • Is the area sensitive to touch and swelling up?
  • Does your skin feel hot and look red and flushed?

If you can answer yes to one or more of these then icing your injury should be the way to go.

However if you are having a flare up of back pain that has no specific origins then be wary, as this could be due to muscle knots, cramps or spasms instead.

And these problems should be treated with heat rather than ice.​

The Benefits Of Using Ice To Treat Back Pain

Outdoor swimming is a popular summertime activity amongst the natives in Scotland.

Don't worry, you don't need to go to the extremes of the guy above to feel the benefits of using ice for your back pain.

But using ice can really help you after an injury.

Because when you injure your back your body suffers trauma, and as a result the area gets inflamed and swollen.

And this inflammation can be extremely painful, as well as delaying the healing process.

However by using ice in the first couple of days after the injury you can:​

  • Minimise this inflammation and swelling.
  • Reduce any damage to your tissues in the pain area.
  • Numb any sore tissues, reducing the pain and discomfort you feel.
  • Get a natural form of pain relief rather than using anti-inflammatory medicine which can come with side-effects.
  • Help your body to heal faster.

How To Use Ice To Treat Back Pain

Once you are sure you are treating a fresh injury rather than chronic muscle pain, you are ready to grab the ice!

This can take many forms such as gel packs, ice packs, frozen towels and even the old favourite - a bag of frozen peas.​

But whatever you decide to use, make sure you are following these guidelines when using ice for your back pain:​

  • Make sure that you place a cloth between your skin and the source of ice to avoid getting 'ice burn'.
  • Don't apply the ice for more than 20 minutes at a time.
  • Don't exceed 8-10 applications per 24 hours.
  • Only use ice for the first 24-72 hours after you sustain your fresh injury.

After this 72 hour period your inflammation should have gone down enough to move on to the next stage of the healing process.

And this is when you should switch to treating your pain with heat instead.

When Should You Use Heat To Treat Back Pain?

Pain relief cream

Heat therapy is great for relaxing your body and mind, taking the edge off persistent and recurring back pain.

This includes things like muscle knots, cramps, overuse injuries, and general aches and pains.​

And the vast majority ​of back pain people experience comes from these problems rather than inflammation.

Making using heat a great choice for those of us with chronic lower back pain.

In fact it can become an important part of your regular pain management routine​.

So how does heat therapy help you?

Firstly, the heat stimulates blood flow within the affected area (in our case the lower back).

And this increased blood flow ensures that the damaged tissues and muscles get the oxygen and nutrients they need to be able to heal.

Secondly, the sensation of heat on the skin's sensory receptors ​irritates them to the point where this irritation takes priority over the feelings of pain in the area.

This blocks pain signals from reaching your brain, reducing the amount of pain you feel.

​Finally, using heat therapy helps you to relax.

This is great for you physically as it reduces the amount of tension and stiffness you feel in your muscles.

Leaving you feeling more flexible, comfortable and happier in your body.

But it is also great for you mentally, and this is so important.

Because ​problems such as anxiety, stress and tension are all very common amongst people with chronic pain.

And they all only serve to make your pain worse.

So by finding ways to relax you are actively reducing your levels of stress and anxiety.

And using heat will help you to do this, reducing the amount of pain you feel.​

When You Shouldn't Use Heat To Treat Back Pain

While using heat is great for chronic pain, it can be harmful when used on fresh injuries.

This is because using heat on an injury that has inflammation or swelling will only make the inflammation worse.

And this increases the pain you are in and delays the recovery process.

​So for fresh injuries make sure you are using ice instead for the first couple of days.

And only once the inflammation has subsided can you then switch to heat to encourage your back to heal.

​Also, heat therapy may not be good for you if you suffer from any of the following:

  • Certain skin conditions such as dermatitis.
  • Diabetes.
  • Deep vein thrombosis.
  • Heat sensitivity.
  • If you have any open wounds or cuts.

The Benefits Of Using Heat To Treat Back Pain

People with chronic and recurring back pain can really benefit from using heat therapy.

This is because it is great for pain caused by muscle knots and cramps.

Which is good news as this is where most unspecified chronic back pain comes from.​

In fact using heat is a great option for any muscle pain ​that doesn't involve inflammation and swelling.

  • It can help your back heal from injury after the initial swelling and inflammation has gone down.
  • It helps to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the damaged muscles and tissues by increasing blood flow to the area.
  • It helps to block pain signals to the brain.
  • It helps you to relax in both body and mind.
  • It reduces stiffness and increases your flexibility.
  • It can reduce stress, anxiety and tension.
  • It causes the release of endorphins within your body, which work as a natural painkiller.
  • It is a cheap form of treatment that is easy to apply.
  • It doesn't carry any side effects, unlike taking pain medication.

How To Use Heat To Treat Back Pain

Not all heroes wear capes.

The aim of using heat therapy to treat back pain is to get the heat to penetrate deep enough to reach the damaged muscles and tissues.

It's no good just warming the skin, you need the heat to really get in there to have an effect.

There are many ways to do this, which I'll go over in a moment, and they fall into two categories.

The first way is the application of dry heat in the form of things like electric heating pads and heat wraps.

These can work well but don't penetrate very deep, and can leave your skin feeling dehydrated.

The second is by applying moist heat, such as taking a hot bath​, which allows greater penetration of the heat into the damaged muscles.

But the aim with all of them ​is the same.

You need to maintain a steady, warm temperature in your pain area for a certain length of time.

The length of time you need to maintain this heat for depends on the severity of your pain.

So for minor pain look at maintaining a warm heat to the affected area for between 15-20 minutes.

And for severe pain you can increase this to between 30-120 minutes.​

Now let's go through the different ways you can ​apply heat to your back.

The Spand-Ice Revive Tank Top

This one is probably my favourite for getting heat therapy for your back.

And the reason for that is that you can wear it on the move.

As it's a tank top you wear either under or over your clothing that has a pouch top put two thermal gel packs in the lower back area.

These thermal packs can be heated in the microwave and stay warm for over an hour at a time.

​And this heat can really help to keep you active.

As it can block pain signals, increase blood flow and relax your muscles while you are on the move.

And as the gel packs are within the tank top they will always stay in place even as you are moving around.

So I'd thoroughly recommend a Revive Tank for people with back pain that lead active​ lives.

And you can also freeze the gel packs if you want to ice your back instead.

To see a Revive tank in action check out the video below.​

Other Ways Of Applying Heat To Your Back

The following are other ways you can apply heat to your back along with recommendations of good products to try.

Rounding Up

So as you can see both ice and heat can be highly effective in reducing back pain.

However this is only the case when they are used in the right way.

So in cases of fresh injuries and pain from inflammation and swelling then​ ice is the way to go.

As this helps to numb the pain as well as reducing painful inflammation.

​However for chronic pain that isn't caused by a specific injury heat is the better option.

​As this helps to block pain signals from reaching your brain, increases blood flow to help your muscles heal and allows them to relax.

So be aware of what is causing your back pain and take the appropriate action to treat it.

As both ice and heat can be a big help in helping you to manage and minimise any back pain that you are feeling.​

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Daniel

I'm a Painter and Decorator, psychology graduate, and veteran of 5 spinal surgeries. I want to help my fellow construction workers to fight back against persistent back pain like I have.

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