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Which is Better for My Lower Back Pain? Ice or Heat?

Posted on January 4, 2023 in: neck pain, pain

Which is Better for My Lower Back Pain? Ice or Heat?

Ice or heat. Most cases of back pain occur in the lower back. There, pain can feel like a sustained but mild discomfort, throbbing or shooting down one's buttocks and legs. Often, the pain is bearable and may go away after some relaxing and gentle stretching. However, lower back problems may result in severe pain that keeps sufferers from sleeping or wakes them up throughout the night.

A popular way to alleviate pain at home is to apply ice, heat, or both. However, it can be challenging to tell which is best. As with all health treatments, it depends on what's at the root of the problem. Here are some helpful tips.

Cases When Ice Is Nice

Cold therapy is best when sudden muscle soreness or inflammation is the primary cause of lower back pain. Specific instances of this include:

  • Post-workout soreness

    Activating lower back muscles with exercises like deadlifts helps strengthen those muscles, which ultimately helps keep back pain at bay. Nevertheless, being strong does not preclude a muscle from getting sore.

    A cold compress helps release the tension and strain on sore muscles. In fact, physical therapists recommend immediately putting ice on your back after a workout if you:

    • Feel you didn't warm up sufficiently
    • Tried an unfamiliar exercise or workout
    • Did too much of a particular exercise
    • Worked out too hard
  • Acute back injury

    Unlike chronic injuries that gradually develop over time due to overuse, an acute injury forms suddenly. A typical example is lifting a heavy box or bag off the ground using our back muscles instead of legs.

    Most people don't squat down and use their legs to lift things, especially since lifting with our backs usually does the trick without any complications. However, lifting something too heavy can result in a muscle strain.

    Cold therapy does double duty for acute back injuries. First, cold temperatures numb down nerves, relieving pain. Second, the cold constricts blood vessels, reducing inflammation and swelling.

    Keep in mind that cold therapy is best applied within three days of getting injured. You'll want to alternate that with heat therapy (more details on this below) once the swelling has subsided. This reinvigorates blood flow and delivers nutrients that promote healing to injured tissues. After a cycle of cold and heat therapy, wait at least two hours before starting a new cycle to avoid damaging nerves and skin.

    Even after inflammation has subsided, continue using heat therapy intermittently over a few hours or days to keep the pain from returning.

  • Sciatica

    Sciatica is a condition in which the nerve that runs from the lower back down through the butt and legs — called the sciatic nerve — is pinched. The pinching typically occurs in the lower back, with pain shooting down from the midsection during a flare-up. Immediately applying a cold compress helps relieve pain, reduces inflammation, and prevents or stops muscle spasms.

ice pack for pain

Tips for Cold Treatment in Maple Grove

Using an ice compress at home for relief is simple enough. Using a cold wrap, ice pack, or bag of frozen vegetables in a few paper towels or a thin washcloth and gently apply pressure to your lower back. As a general rule of thumb, don't put the ice on your back for more than 20 minutes at a time.

Cases When Heat Can’t Be Beat

Generally, heat therapy is best for cases when discomfort in the back (or nearly anywhere, for that matter) has lasted more than a few days. Or when dealing with a chronic or recurring injury. As a pain management tool, heat decreases pain signals by encouraging tense muscles to relax.

Moreover, heat dilates blood vessels, encouraging more blood flow in the affected area. As more oxygen and nutrients make their way to the location of the injury, more damaged cells and waste materials are carried away, which speeds up the healing process.

Tips For Treating Yourself With Heat

You have to exercise care when using heat to avoid overdoing it. For your lower back, in particular, it is best to apply warm temperatures rather than anything too hot. Here are a couple of ways you can use heat to relieve pain and discomfort:

  • Take a hot bath - A hot shower or dip in the bathtub is an excellent way to alleviate your body of muscle soreness and tension.
  • Apply a warm water bottle or compress - Just wrap it in a thin washcloth if it's too hot to the touch, place it on your back, and relax as you wait until the bottle or compress loses heat on its own.
  • Use an electric heating pad - Most electric heating pads are large enough to cover large areas of skin and have controls for setting the temperature and duration of the treatment.
  • Stick-on heat wraps - Most heat applications require that you sit or lie down for long periods. But if you're in pain and still need to go to work or run errands, you can apply adhesive heat wraps on affected areas and hide them under your clothes. These wraps deliver low-level heat for several hours to provide long-lasting relief from lower back pain.

If You Don’t Know Which Therapy To Use, Try Using Both

Your body may respond better to one therapy than another, so try alternating between cold and heat therapies. Then see which one you prefer. If you decide to use both, always start with cold therapy. And remember, you should always wait two hours before initiating another cold-and-heat therapy cycle.

Make Ice or Heat Daily Routines For Effective Pain Management

Depending on the severity of your injury, cold and heat therapies may be sufficient to avoid the need for pain medication. Here are ways you can incorporate both into your daily life:

  • For chronic back pain – apply heat before going to bed and after waking up.
  • If your back is stiff or aches upon waking up – try immediately applying a heat patch or warm compress.
  • If you exerted your back or worked out – apply cold therapy right before bed.

Ideally, you'll land on a routine you enjoy and develop habits for incorporating therapies into your daily routine. You might keep an ice pack in the office freezer or heat wraps in the glove box. Anything that ensures you always have something nearby to prevent back pain from flaring up.

Both ice and heat therapy help with symptoms like general inflammation and back pain. But there could be underlying causes that cold or heat can't address. These are cases when you need the expertise of a chiropractor to diagnose and treat your injury.

Dr. Tieri of Total Spine and Health Injury Center is one of the most trusted and best-reviewed chiropractors in Maple Grove. If you need help getting rid of recent or chronic back pain, schedule an appointment today.