Most adults experience back pain at some point. Although we still highly encourage seeing a doctor for chronic back pain, one of the tried-and-tested treatments you can do at home is applying heat or cold therapy. But how do you know when to use either?
When to use cold therapy
Ice can be an effective pain reliever if you have an acute back injury, like straining your lower back muscles after lifting a heavy object. The cold from the ice can help reduce inflammation in the affected area. For better effectiveness, make sure to apply ice within two days of the injury.
Cold therapy is also best for post-exercise sore muscles. Regular exercise is excellent for relieving or preventing back pain, but sore muscles are a common aftereffect. Applying cold therapy can help ease the strain and tension in your muscles.
Sciatica pain can be relieved with cold therapy. Sciatica refers to the pain in the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back down through the buttocks and legs. If you’re experiencing a sciatica flare-up, immediate application of cold therapy can reduce the pain, inflammation, and muscle spasms related to sciatica.
How to apply cold therapy
There are different methods for applying cold therapy for back pain. One is ice massage therapy, which involves gently rubbing a piece of ice over the affected area to numb your back and lessen the pain. You can also use a makeshift or store-bought cold compress.
If you choose to use ice, avoid putting it directly on your skin for a long time to prevent burning. However, if you want to leave the ice pack or cold compress on the sore area, wrap it in a thin washcloth for a layer of protection between your skin and the ice. You can ice up to 20 minutes at a time.
When to use heat therapy
Heat therapy can relieve back pain, but it depends on the cause of the pain. If you live with chronic pain that hasn’t disappeared for more than a month, heat can help relax the tissues and decrease pain signals. Heat can also encourage blood vessels in your back to dilate, promoting healing.
How to apply heat therapy
There are also various techniques to apply heat therapy to relieve back pain, like cold therapy. One is through an electric heating pad, which provides a consistent heat source. Many heating pads allow you to control the temperature and set a timer, so you don’t accidentally leave it on your back for too long.
Another option is the trusty hot water bottle. Remember to wrap a light washcloth around the bottle, especially if it’s too hot to touch. You can also choose to run a hot bath, which can help relieve not only back pain but also any other muscle soreness you may be experiencing.
Lastly, you can choose to use adhesive heat wraps. You can wear over-the-counter adhesive heat wraps under your clothing for a safe, low-level amount of heat that can last for several hours.
When to use both heat and cold therapy
Certain circumstances call for the use of both cold and heat therapy. If you’re preparing for a workout, use a warm compress to help relax your back muscles and prepare them for movement. About 10 to 15 minutes of heat therapy is usually enough.
Then after cooling down, you can use cold therapy to soothe any muscle soreness. You can apply a cold compress or ice pack immediately after working out or later in the day.
Always remember to protect your skin, whether you choose to apply cold or heat therapy or both. Set a timer for your therapy sessions to ensure you don’t leave the heat or cold compress on your back for too long.