Heat or Cold: Which One Is Better for Back Pain

Heat or Cold Which One Is Better for Back Pain
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Back pain is something that we would suffer from at one point or another in our lives. It can happen at absolutely any age but tends to become more common as we get older. While over-the-counter oral medications can help to a certain extent, they aren’t good in the long term, so people tend to turn to heat or ice for back pain.

However, you should not be using the wrong kind of compress as that will leave you with the risk of worsening your back pain. As such, we got in touch with some of the top orthopedic doctors in the state to know which kind of compress you should be using when you suffer from back pain.

Heat or Cold for Back Pain?

Using heat or cold compress for back pain is without a doubt a simple and drug-free approach which could be quite effective. But selecting between heat and ice can depend on your back pain, more specifically whether these pains are acute or chronic.

Typically, chronic pain results from a slowly developing condition/s which causes a dull ache from time to time. An example of this pain is due to an ongoing overuse of a muscle or spinal stenosis symptoms. Acute pain, on the other hand, could result from activities such as twisting or lifting, or even from nerve-related back pain issues like sciatica.

Below we will talk about heat and ice applications for acute back pains.

Using Cold Compress

If you suddenly get back pain due to some injury, it is essential that you apply cold therapy to the area in the first 24 to 72 hours after the injury. By applying a block of ice or an ice pack, the swelling and inflammation can be reduced, which further helps in reducing the pain. Additionally, ice could potentially decrease the level of tissue damage and also numb the sore tissues.

When you choose to use ice, there are quite a few ways to go about it. Some of these include a frozen pack of peas, a frozen towel, or a frozen gel pack.


Regardless of which type of ice pack you choose, it is important to keep in mind some precautions. The following are some you should keep in mind:

  • Never apply an ice pack to your skin directly. Always use a protective barrier such as a towel or a cloth between it and your skin so that you will avoid an ice burn.
  • Keep in mind is that you should be using an ice pack for over 20 minutes at a single time. Also, you should use an ice pack only for up to eight or 10 times within 24 hours.
  • You should avoid any ice application if you suffer from certain types of medical conditions. Some of these conditions may include Raynaud’s Syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, paralysis, cold allergic conditions, areas with impaired sensation, and the likes.

Using Hot Compress

If you feel that the initial swelling has settled down, you can move on to heat application which will encourage more healing in the back. By using heat therapy, it will stimulate the blood flow to the back which in turn brings in restorative nutrients and oxygen. In addition, heat application can also inhibit the transmission of pain signals to the brain and decrease the level of stiffness.

When it comes to heat application, there are two basic categories for it: moist and dry. Dry heat could potentially have your skin feeling dehydrated. That said, several people still find it easier to apply.

Dry heat therapy includes a hot water bottle which tends to stay warm for about 30 minutes. You can also use gel packs by heating it in the microwave. These tend to stay warm for up to 30 minutes.

Certain gels packs also provide moist heat. You can also use heat pads that stick to the body. An easier heat application is the electric heating pad which will maintain a constant heat level while it is plugged in.

Moist heat, on the other hand, includes steamed towels, hot baths, or moist heating packs which do not make the skin feel dehydrated. Likewise, its heat penetrates the muscles.

When To Avoid Heat Therapy?

It is important to note that heat therapy should not even be considered as an option under certain circumstances. For instance, if your back is bruised or swollen, if you have an open wound, and if you suffer from dermatitis or deep vein thrombosis. Additionally, if you suffer from hypertension or heart diseases, it is best that you first consult with your doctor before you use heat therapy.

What If You Suffer From Chronic Back Pain?

So far, we have spoken about using heat or ice for backache that occurs after an injury. However, some people suffer from chronic back pain. What can you do?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer or even the right answer. It most likely depends on what works for you best.

Ideally, you should find a balance between heat and cold therapy. This happens with a ton of trial and error. Remember that something that works for someone else may not necessarily work for you.

However, when it comes to exercise, several people suffering from chronic back pain tend to find that heat therapy helps them warm up their muscles beforehand. On the contrary, cold therapy helps with all the inflammation and pain afterward.

If you do suffer from chronic back pain, do keep in mind that using heat or cold therapy are just temporary solutions. Relying on these kinds of self-care solutions could potentially make your pain worse. So, make sure that you are receiving appropriate care from a highly qualified medical professional over and above the heat and cold therapy.

Final Thoughts

When choosing whether to use heat or ice for back pain, if it has occurred through an injury, always start with ice application until 72 hours and then move onto using heat application to help heal it.

However, with chronic back pain, choosing between heat and ice entirely depends on you. Try what works the best for you or a combination of both.

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