If you suffer from lower back pain, you must have heard numerous advice from well-wishers that sound like the ones above. The contradicting guidance can leave anyone confused. Using ice or heat for lower back pain can relieve the pain.
Since these methods are cheap, effective, and require minimal supervision, they are widely used to treat back pain. Lower back pain is among the top ten diseases that result in the highest number of Disability Adjusted Life Years or DALY.
A simple and cheap treatment can benefit around 80% of the adult population(1). Wouldn’t it be nice to know which among ice and heat takes the crown for effective back pain treatment? Keep reading to get the answers.
Did You Know!
Every year, Americans spend around USD 50 billion on treating back pain.
What Does Ice do for Lower Back Pain?
Ice calms down inflammations. When you suffer an injury, the area becomes inflamed. You would notice swelling and redness. Inflammation is the most noticeable sign of superficial tissue damage. It is very natural, and the inflammation would subside on its own in due time. However, there is no denying that it is a painful process(2).
Ice is the best way to counter the effects of inflammation. It calms down the inflamed tissue, reduces redness, and swelling. Icing an injury brings immediate relief to the pain it causes.
Ice also has a numbing effect on the injured and inflamed tissues. It also helps reduce the extent of the damage. Ice can help even when you are dealing with an injured muscle. However, you should note that this benefit is applicable only when the tissue is inflamed, which is the first 24 to 72 hours following the injury.
When Not to Use Ice
Your lower back contains many trigger points. These are tiny muscle patches that are getting cramped. If you ice these trigger points, your pain may become worse. Trigger points are no fresh injuries. So how do you distinguish between a freshly injured muscle and a muscle pain? Here is a short checklist:
- Did the pain come as a jolt when you were doing something that strained your back?
- Is the area hot to touch? Is there any redness or swelling?
- Do you see a bump or a small depression?
If your answer is yes to all of the above, then you have a muscle injury and should ice the area immediately.
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Heat do for Lower Back Pain:
Applying heat to encourage the flow of blood in the area. The increased blood flow brings in more oxygen and nutrients and promotes better healing. Heat also reduces the stiffness in the muscles. The heat helps in stretching the soft tissues in the lower back, increasing the flexibility in the area. As with ice, heat also decreases pain(3).
All of this makes heat the best treatment for stiffness and muscle aches, especially the ones caused by trigger points. A comfortable level of heat also helps soothe your mind and relieves tension.
If your lower back pain was caused by lifestyle-related issues and not by an injury, then heat therapy may be the best course of action. Continuous over-exertion can lead to an increase in tension in the lower back. When this happens, the blood flow to the region is affected negatively. Heat counteracts the tension and aids the healing process.
When Not to Use Heat
If you have suffered a fresh injury and the lower back appears to be inflamed, then stay away from heat. Applying heat to an area that is already hot, red, and swollen will only make things worse.
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Both heat and ice are similar in their ability to treat lower back pain.
Process of Treatments
Now that you are clear on when to use the heat and ice therapies let us move on to how to use them.
1. Ice Therapy
You can buy an ice pack from your local pharmacy or make one by putting some ice in a zip lock bag. You can even use a pack of frozen vegetables. Wrap the packet in a towel and apply it to the lower back. Wrapping the cold packet in a towel protects your skin from ice burn. You can apply an ice pack for 20 minutes at a time. The cold therapy can be used around 8 to 10 times a day.
2. Heat Therapy
There are various ways to apply heat to your lower back. You can use a hot water bottle, a heated gel pack or an electric heating pad. You can even use a steamed towel or a heat wrap. Even a hot shower or sauna is effective in many cases. Apply the heat to the desired area for 15 to 20 minutes.
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Make the Right Choice
So how do you decide which one to use? Well, if the injury is fresh and if it ticks all the boxes for an inflammation, use cold therapy for the first 24 to 72 hours. Once the inflammation calms down, you can use heat therapy to reduce stiffness. You may even find it beneficial to use both. Start your day with heat therapy to get rid of the stiffness. As the day progresses, you may feel some inflammation around your back. Switch to ice therapy when this happens.
There is no common rule that says one is better than the others. Treatment is subjective and varies from patient to patient. You can try both and see which one offers you relief from lower back pain.
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1. Should I use heat or ice for lower back pain?
Ice should be used for fresh injuries and to calm down inflammation. Heat is better suited to improve flexibility and reduce stiffness.
2. Is ice or heat better for back pain?
Both work equally well. However, you may feel better after one particular therapy. So use both, see the effects and decide for yourself.
3. What precautions should I take while using ice and heat for lower back pain?
You should never apply heat or ice directly to the skin. Always place a cloth between your skin and the hot or cold therapy source.