There are many reasons why hot and cold therapy is the go-to treatment for almost any form of physical soreness or injury. They are an easy, safe, inexpensive and eco-friendly way to relieve pain and can be done from the comfort of your home. They also do not have any of the side effects or risks that come with many other treatment options.
That said, hot and cold therapy is also not as effective as many other methods. And it can be difficult to determine whether you should use heat or ice for back pain.
But don't worry -- this article will walk you through the decision-making process and help you determine what's good for your back pain (and other pain or injury) -- ice or heat.
Hyperthermia: Why a heated harness is a great way to get rid of back pain
In general, hyperthermia (AKA, thermotherapy) is the best solution for sore, stiff, or sore muscles, especially in the neck or back.
Your muscles generally respond well to heat, especially if your discomfort stems from overexertion, trigger points (knots), cramps, cramps (including those related to your menstrual cycle), poor posture, or restless legs syndrome .
Using a heating pad is also one of the best ways to relieve pain or stiffness from arthritis.
Heating pads can also relieve "whole body pain" or sensitivity caused by fibromyalgia, sleep deprivation, rheumatic disease, or vitamin D deficiency, to name a few.
How does hyperthermia work?
In general, using a heated back support or soaking in a warm tub has many therapeutic benefits. For most people, heat provides comfort, relaxation, and peace of mind.
Chronic pain is closely associated with sensitivity, anxiety, tension and hypervigilance. Applying comforting heat to stiff back muscles or relaxing in the sauna can soothe an overstressed nervous system.
More scientifically, heat helps your blood vessels dilate, allowing blood to flow more freely. This helps remove toxins and promotes healing.
How to Use Heat Therapy to Relax Tight Lower Back Muscles
In most cases, applying heat to the painful area for 20 minutes every hour will help.
For more serious injuries, you may need to apply the heating pad to the lower, middle, or upper back for 30 minutes to two hours. In this case, you should probably purchase a reusable heating pad for back pain that wraps around your body.
Always place multiple layers of towels between your skin and the heat source to prevent burns.
Your heating tape should be at a warm temperature, not a high temperature that will reduce comfort/burn your skin.
You can use a heating pad to help relieve low back pain during pregnancy, as long as you don't directly heat your belly.
Should you use dry or moist heat for back muscle pain?
The answer to this question really depends on your preference and the most convenient method. Dry heat (think electric heating pads or saunas) tends to draw moisture from the skin, dehydrating it. But some people prefer the feel of dry heat, and it's usually easier to apply.
Moist heat, such as a hot bath, steamed towel, or moist heat pack, can help the heat penetrate into the muscles, giving some people better results. But it's also not very convenient to apply, and some people don't like the combination of moisture and heat.
You may need to experiment to see which method works best for your back pain.
When Hyperthermia Isn't the Answer
Sometimes heat can make your discomfort worse, or ice therapy is a better option (although this is rarely the case with back pain).
If you do strain or strain your lower back muscles, the heat can cause inflammation. Heating the inflamed tissue will make your pain worse, and it certainly won't help things get better any time soon.
Another situation where hyperthermia is not a good idea is if you are already sweating. Adding more calories may send threat signals to your brain, prompting it to elevate your pain response.
This may seem obvious, but you shouldn't apply heat to open wounds or infected tissue. Hyperthermia should also be avoided while treating:
- deep vein thrombosis
- peripheral vascular disease
- Ice therapy: some scenarios that are beneficial for back pain (eg, lower back strain)
Ice therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is often used for fresh injuries. The cold of an ice pack can calm inflamed, hot, red, or swollen tissue.
While this is your body's natural (and healthy) response to injury and part of the healing process, it can be very painful and last longer than necessary.
Applying a cold gel to a freshly injured back or other area of the body can reduce pain and reduce swelling.
How can an ice pack help?
So what happens when you put an ice pack on your back or knees? Cold temperatures restrict blood flow to the muscles, which can help reduce bruising, swelling, and pain.
After removing the ice pack, your muscles will warm up and your blood vessels will dilate, bringing in a lot of fresh blood, helping to remove debris left by the injury and speeding up the healing process.
Cold therapy is an excellent choice for treating new injuries such as back muscle strains, sprains or strains, or new cases of IT band syndrome.
When ice therapy isn't the answer
As with hyperthermia, it may sometimes be tempting to slap a bag of ice on any aching or twitching muscle. But ice therapy for back spasms and some other problems can actually do more harm than good.
You should not apply ice when:
General muscle pain
- Trigger points (sensitive, painful areas in muscles, also known as muscle "knots")
- Lose body fat (yes, that's one thing)
Also, it's pretty intuitive, but you shouldn't use ice cubes if you're already shaking.
Another word for smart people - you might think you've "strained" or "strained" a muscle in your back or neck, but actual tissue damage is very rare. The tissue in the back is very thick, and it takes a lot of force -- like whipping in a car accident or lifting something very heavy -- to actually tear the muscle.
So when it comes to answering the question - what's good for back pain, hot or cold? - Heat usually wins.
If you do have a back strain from weightlifting or other reasons, you should only apply ice for a few days and then switch to a heating pad.
where to buy back-sized heat/cold packs
Scared of finding ice packs and heat packs to treat injuries? This large hot and cold back pack comes with two gel packs to simplify injury treatment.
It's specifically designed to provide focused cold/heat therapy for your sore or injured back, with the added benefit of compressing and supporting your mid-rise to low back.
Hot and cold back wraps are great for low back pain and tightness
You can place low-profile wraps under or on top of clothing. The belt-like product lets you easily ice or heat your back on the go, and its lightweight foam is soft and breathable.
Without it, you'll likely be lying on your back for long periods of time each day with an ice pack or heating pad. Sticking to a regular ice/heat therapy schedule (which is easier to do with this belt) will give faster and longer lasting results.
This heat/cold therapy belt has pockets to hold two non-toxic gel pads and is included with purchase. You can also buy extra gel packs so you don't have to wait for ice packs to refreeze. Both reusable ice packs can be used in the refrigerator and microwave.
Best Practice: How to Ice Your Back
Apply ice to the painful area for 10 minutes every hour.
Stick to an hourly schedule. The more often the cycle/transition happens, the faster your body will heal.
Place a thin barrier, such as a towel, between the skin and the ice pack to prevent skin damage.
If you're using ice therapy for therapeutic or exercise reasons, it should be done a few hours after your workout. Ideally, this should be done first thing in the morning/and/or before bed.
Cold Therapy Trends
Ice has long been a core component of athletes' post-workout recovery, as ice baths soothe inflamed muscles after a workout.
That said, cold therapy should not be administered immediately after a workout. While an ice bath feels great, this post-workout inflammation is actually an important factor in helping athletes become stronger and more resilient.
Some athletes use controlled cold exposure (eg, a three-minute cold shower or ice bath at the end of the day) to gain hormonal benefits and gain mental advantage. Some studies have also shown that therapeutic cold exposure can reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infections.
Contrast Therapy: Using Hot and Cold Therapy for Back Pain
Hot/cold immersion therapy alternates quickly between cold and hot therapy to shake your body's circulation. As you might imagine, switching quickly between hot and cold water can be very stimulating, but other than that, the benefits of this approach to dealing with an injured lat (back muscle) or any other injury are fairly unknown of.
Some studies show that contrast therapy can improve your body's immune system, but others show minimal or nearly equal net benefits compared to heat and cold therapy alone.
Contrast therapy can be used to try post-workout recovery purposes or to reduce injury-related swelling. But it should not be used on fresh injuries when swelling, heat, and redness are still present.
How to perform contrast therapy
Most use cold water temperatures between 45°F and 68°F and hot water temperatures between 93°F and 106°F.
Cycle between cold and hot for 20 to 30 minutes, 3 to 5 minutes per immersion in cold/hot water.
Most people think it's best to end with a cold shower.
Infographic on how to do Contrast Bath Therapy for Muscle Rehabilitation
7 Additional Steps for Stiff Back Treatment
- Use good posture throughout the day.
- Try doing some shrugs or stretches to relieve tension.
- Give yourself a massage or massage (and make sure to drink plenty of water afterwards to flush out toxins).
- Add a cushion to your office chair to make it more comfortable.
- Put on an industrial back support brace when you lift heavy objects.
- Take a break from work.
- Keep your back straight when sleeping with a pillow.
Rub some creams designed to relieve pain, or try a pain relief patch on any painful tissue.
Bottom Line on What to Use for Back Pain - Ice or Heat
So, as we've explained, heat therapy is often the best option for a sore back or neck, but there are exceptions. But aside from using a heating pad to relieve back pain, there are a few other options you can try.
In the end, what you should use to relieve back muscle pain will come down to user preference. How you feel about ice or heat therapy will affect its effectiveness, as your body responds by relaxing or alerting.