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Ice or Heat? Choosing the Best Method to Relieve Back Pain

June 7, 2024 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Person holding an ice pack on their lower back

You’ve just injured your back – now what? Before you reach for an ice pack or a warm compress for pain relief, keep reading to learn about whether ice or heat therapy is right for you.

Back pain is a prevalent condition that may lead to discomfort, reduced mobility and decreased quality of life. When seeking relief from back pain, you may wonder if ice or heat is the most suitable method for your discomfort.

Option #1 – ice therapy

Ice therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is particularly effective in the initial 48-82 hours of a back injury when inflammation is a significant factor. Applying ice constricts blood vessels, slowing down the inflammatory response and reducing swelling.

If you’re having a back pain flare up, ice can disrupt those pain signals with its numbing effect.

The cold temperature can also help manage muscle spasms and relax the muscles.

Ice therapy is generally more suitable for acute injuries or inflammation and can be more effective in reducing symptoms of swelling.

To get started, apply ice packs wrapped in a thin cloth to the affected area for 15-20 minutes at a time, allowing the skin to warm up between applications. Never apply ice directly to the skin as it can cause ice burns.

Option #2 – heat therapy

Known as thermotherapy, heat therapy works by promoting blood circulation and relaxing tense muscles. It is particularly useful for chronic back pain and conditions like muscle strains or stiffness.

Applying heat to the affected area before stretching or doing physical therapy can help improve flexibility and range of motion. Heat also soothes muscles and promotes relaxation.

Heat therapy is easy. Simply apply a heat pack or hot water bottle wrapped in a towel to the affected area for 15-20 minutes at a time.

Avoid excessive heat or prolonged exposure to prevent burns. Use a moderate temperature that feels comfortable but not excessively hot.

Choosing the right therapy

At the end of the day, both ice and heat therapy can help relieve back pain. Find what works best for you by experimenting with each method.

If you strain a back muscle, we recommend icing it for the first few days to numb the pain and decrease swelling, then switch to heat therapy to increase blood flow to the affected area and promote natural healing.

Remember, it is important to listen to your body and adjust your approach based on what brings you the most relief and comfort.

Hayley Campbell, MD, is a board-certified Physiatrist at Huntsville Hospital’s Spine & Neuro Center.

Dr. Hayley Campbell, MD, is a board-certified Physiatrist at Huntsville Hospital’s Spine & Neuro Center. She specializes in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and provides patients with expert care for non-surgical spine treatments.

If back pain is stopping you from doing what you love, it’s time to see a neurosurgeon or physiatrists at Spine & Neuro. You can call 256-533-1600 to make an appointment today.

Click here to learn more about Huntsville Hospital’s Spine & Neuro Center and our providers.