Should You Use Ice or Heat for Back Pain? - Brace Direct

Should You Use Ice or Heat for Back Pain?

Approximately 16 million Americans suffer from chronic back pain. This type of persistent pain will impact your physical and emotional well-being. Others suffer from acute back pain. If you're suffering from a condition causing either of these, you're probably searching for relief.

There are many treatments available, some more complicated than others. But ice or heat is a well-known traditional one that many people are familiar with.

Ice or heat for back pain is the most accessible treatment. It's simple and widely available. With that said, some people have questions about when ice or heat is appropriate to use. First, you'll need to decide if you can benefit from particular pain relief.

When You Can Benefit From Ice or Heat for Back Pain

Naturally, ice and heat are not the same things. Your ailment may benefit more from heat treatment than ice, and vice versa. Heat is a good choice for chronic pain, while ice is better for acute pain where you're trying to numb the area.

When to Apply Heat for Back Pain

man using hot water bottle on his back pain

Heat therapy is an excellent option for chronic back pain and can be used before exercise to help loosen up muscles. It's also more effective at treating muscle spasms than ice and helps with stiff joints.

Heat can relax muscles and promote blood circulation when applied to sore muscles. Some muscle soreness occurs because your body releases lactic acid during exercise. When heat assists in circulation, it helps your body move those toxins away and can help reduce pain.  

Chronic back pain can be the result of several diagnoses: 

  • Strain to muscles or ligaments
  • Injury
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Degenerative disk disease

How to Apply Heat for Back Pain

You can apply heat to your back for pain management by using hot packs, a bath, a shower, or a heating pad. For 15 to 20 minutes at a time, apply heat. And then repeat later on as needed, alternating with ice when applicable.

You should use caution when applying an electric heating pad because burns can occur if the heating pad is left in contact with the skin for a prolonged period. Use the low or medium settings, and avoid high.

Some people help find it helpful to use a timer when utilizing an electric heating pad. The timer can remind them when to remove it or helpfully wake them up if they've fallen asleep while using it. Follow any instructions your heating pack may have come with to avoid injury.

When to Apply Ice for Back Pain

person using an ice pack on lower back pain

Ice for back pain can be instrumental when dealing with issues like inflammation or swelling. It's ideal for use after exercise when muscles may be sore. It can numb pain and reduce inflammation. 

If ice is used immediately following an injury, it can effectively combat the swelling of tissues in areas outside the injury site. When you stop that swelling ahead of time, you'll have less to look after later.

You can use ice on your back several times a day after injuring yourself for 72 hours. After that, your body may respond better to using heat instead.

Minimizing these symptoms can lead to a reduction in pain. You can use ice for back pain when suffering from: 

  • Swelling
  • Inflammation
  • Injury
  • After exercise

How to Apply Ice for Back Pain

You can use ice packs or a bag of frozen vegetables on the affected area for up to 20 minutes. Remember to wrap the pack with a thin towel or washcloth, so the ice isn't directly against your skin. Keeping ice directly against your skin can result in frostbite or skin irritation. 

Should You Alternate Ice or Heat for Back Pain?

woman runner stretching her back

Alternating ice or heat for back pain can be beneficial to your body. In the case of injury or soreness from exercise, you can apply ice for up to 20 minutes to reduce swelling. After 48 hours, you can alternate to heat and use that for further pain management. 

You can alternate on and off between ice or heat for back pain as is appropriate for your situation. Be careful not to use heat on the pain site for 48 hours after obtaining an injury because it may cause further inflammation and delay your recovery time.

When You Shouldn't Use Ice or Heat for Back Pain

Ice or heat shouldn't be used for back pain when you have open wounds, bleeding, or experiencing leaking fluids. You should see a medical professional to determine appropriate pain management for that situation. Applying either could result in further injury.

Heat is not the answer for certain circulatory issues, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, or rheumatoid arthritis unless directed by a doctor. In those situations, it's possible to exacerbate the problem. It also should not be used for the first 48 hours after an injury occurs for similar reasons. In those instances, it can increase inflammation.

Ice is not helpful for general body aches or particularly sharp points of pain in your muscles, what some people might call knots (also known as myofascial trigger points).

Use Ice or Heat for Back Pain in Moderation

While these are generally safe and effective measures to help treat back pain, too much of anything can be bad for you. 

Using too much ice therapy can result in frostbite or an unpleasant numbing of the area. 

Water Circulation Devices

woman using a hot cold water ice circulation machine on her lower back pain

The FDA has released a consumer update on water-circulating hot/cold therapy devices. These devices will take heated or chilled water and pump it through a tube and into a wrap. This wrap is placed against the injury site to deliver temperature therapy. 

When used appropriately, these devices pose no significant risk and can effectively manage pain. 

The difference between an ice pack and a water circulation device is that an ice pack will gradually warm up over time. A water circulation device will stay colder much longer because it's constantly moving through the device, which chills it.  

Again, these devices can be safely used as long as all the instructions are followed regarding their use. If you're concerned about your safety, speak with your doctor and be sure to ask additional questions.

Whole Body Cryotherapy

The FDA also reports on a trend where a person submerges their entire body in a freezing tank. This is meant to supercool your whole system and allegedly help with various ailments.

But there is limited evidence to support that this is helpful and may even be dangerous for your health. If this therapy is recommended to you by a friend or relative, you should decline. 

While ice or heat for back pain can be exceedingly helpful therapy, you should avoid anything that sounds too out there and isn't prescribed by a doctor.

How to Make the Most of Ice or Heat for Back Pain

You can make the most of ice or heat for back pain by using both! 

Ice is often suitable for use immediately following pain, numbing the area and reducing any swelling or inflammation that you may be experiencing.

From there, you can use heat therapy 48 hours after the injury is incurred. If you alternate back and forth with ice or heat for back pain, you'll make the most out of your temperature therapy.

You can further make the most of these pain management tactics by using the following tips:

  • Rest when possible
  • Compression
  • Elevation
  • Apply ice every few hours for up to 20 minutes
  • Apply heat up to 3 times a day, for 10-20 minutes at a time

If you find that using ice or heat for back pain is part of your routine, you should keep reliable methods of both on hand. Stock your freezer with several high-quality ice packs, and keep the same on hand for hot compresses. 

Using an ice pack on your sore muscles and then hopping into the shower and relaxing in your tub for a warm soak are also ways to manage this technique effectively.

When to Call a Doctor About Back Pain

man being examined by doctor for back pain

If you've experienced an acute injury or if your pain is continuous and doesn't go away, you should speak with our doctor. You may have an underlying cause that needs a proper diagnosis. You should not attempt to diagnose any serious conditions yourself.

If ice or heat for back pain doesn't seem to lead to consistent relief, you will benefit from additional therapies that only a doctor can guide you in choosing. Luckily, there are many options to choose from in pain management today.

Final Thoughts

It's never fun to experience back pain, but thankfully ice and heat for back pain are simple and affordable solutions available to many. These can be first-stop forms of relief for sufferers of back pain and a tactic that wards off needing to reach for pain relievers. 

Alternating between ice and heat for back pain is a reliable way to make the most of both techniques and offer your maximum chance for healing. These are safe methods of pain management and ones that you can rely on. You should avoid any radical treatments using ice or heat without first speaking with your doctor.

And finally, if you're not experiencing relief and your pain persists, you should contact a doctor to assess your condition professionally. There are many other therapies and treatments that can get you on track and feeling well again.