September 15, 2022
When you have back pain, you want to relieve it as quickly and effectively as possible. Taking medication for pain can be helpful, but you may not want to rely on painkillers if you have chronic or recurring pain. You can use other treatment methods to safely take the edge off back pain. Both ice and heat can help relieve discomfort from back pain and promote healing from injuries.
What Is the Best Practice for Treating Back Pain: Ice or Heat?
Both ice and heat are safe treatments for most people. Protecting your skin is the most important part of applying either ice or heat. Don’t apply ice or heat directly to your skin: use a fabric barrier such as a towel to separate the skin from the cold or heat source. You should also limit the length of time you apply ice or heat to 15-20 minutes.
The choice of whether ice or heat is the most appropriate treatment depends on several factors. Ice is the recommended first treatment for pain from new injuries since heat can lead to increased blood flow to the injury. That can result in excessive bleeding or bruising. You can use either ice or heat for chronic back pain. In some cases, it’s helpful to use a combination of heat and ice.
When to Use Ice for Back Pain
Icing, or cryotherapy, is a common pain treatment. It’s particularly helpful right after an acute injury because ice slows inflammation at the site of the injury. Ice can also numb your nerves and reduce the sensation of pain temporarily.
Icing might be your first choice if you have a new injury or soreness due to exercise or exertion. Ice is helpful for conditions like tendonitis or bursitis, where damaged tissues are inflamed and painful. Icing is also helpful for sciatica flare-ups. The cold can release muscle spasms and reduce the nerve pain associated with sciatica.
Ice works for pain relief by bringing down the swelling in the affected muscles. Icing also numbs the nerves and decreases the pain you feel. Many experts recommend icing for the first two days after an injury. After that, ice may be less effective.
How to Use Ice for Back Pain
The simplest method of icing your back is to apply a cold compress to the painful area. You can buy ice packs at many drug stores. You can also use items in your home to make an ice pack. Bags of frozen vegetables make good ice packs, as do plastic bags filled with crushed ice. You can also dampen a washcloth or towel and put it in the freezer until it gets cold.
Some people use a method of ice massage where they rub an ice pack gently over the affected area. Massage isn’t necessary; you should only try it if you can do so without straining your back as you try to reach the injured spot. You can ask a friend or family member to help if you can’t safely do it yourself.
Make sure your ice pack has a protective wrap before applying it to your skin. Applying ice directly to the skin can lead to damage, such as frostbite. Leave the ice on the painful spot for 15-20 minutes, then remove it. Remove ice sooner if your skin loses sensation from the cold. You can reapply ice several times a day. Wait several hours before reapplying ice.
When to Use Heat for Back Pain
Heat is helpful for chronic or lingering pain. Heat is also helpful for soothing soreness after a workout. Most experts recommend against using heat within the first 48 hours after a new injury.
Heat is useful for reducing tension in muscles, which can reduce soreness. It can relieve joint stiffness to improve mobility and range of motion. Heat also increases circulation in the affected area. Increased blood flow means increased nutrients going to the affected tissue, speeding healing. The increased blood flow may also help flush chemicals like lactic acid out of muscles after heavy exertion.
How to Use Heat for Back Pain
You can apply heat to the affected area using a warm compress. An electric heating pad is an effective method. You can also try dampening a towel and heating it briefly in the microwave. Once the towel is warm but not hot, you can rest it on the sore spot. Taking a warm bath or shower can also help.
Apply heat for 15 to 20 minutes, then remove the warm compress. Make sure to protect your skin from getting burned. Use a protective cover over a heating pad or wrap a dry towel around one you have heated in the microwave. You can apply heat several times per day.
If you have pain accompanied by stiffness first thing in the morning, applying heat as soon as you wake up can warm and loosen the muscles. Keep a heating pad near your bed and apply it to stiff back muscles before getting up. Do not sleep with a heating pad, as that is a fire hazard and can lead to burns.
Alternating Heat and Ice for Back Pain
You may benefit from a combination of icing and heat for back pain. You’ll get the anti-inflammatory benefits from the cold and the relaxation and circulation boost from the heat. The two treatment types may lessen your discomfort and speed up the healing process.
To alternate heat and cold, apply heat for 15 to 20 minutes, then remove it. Wait several hours before applying ice. When you’re ready, apply ice for 15 to 20 minutes. You can continue alternating that way throughout the day.
When to See a Doctor for Back Pain
You should talk to your doctor if you have severe or worsening pain that doesn’t respond to home care. You may have an injury that needs immediate attention. You may also have a condition such as arthritis or degenerative disc disease. A doctor will help find the source of your back pain and prescribe treatment to reduce it. This could include medication, physical therapy, or surgery.
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