Back pain is one of those things that affect most people at some point, whether from an injury such as a fall or lifting heavy objects incorrectly, or from complications from arthritis or simple aging. Whether it can be treated at home or in conjunction with a doctor’s advice, many people try to ease the pain by applying ice or heat to the area – but this can cause some confusion as to which is best.
People suffering from back pain, especially pain that comes from a muscular issue, may be drawn to a heat pad, but they may actually be better off looking for an ice pack first. Heat application is popular because it relaxes the muscles, which eases tension and soothes pain and aching; however, to some extent it only covers the pain instead of healing it. Although relaxing to the muscles, the heat contributes to the inflammation in the area, so with a recent injury – within the first 24 to 48 hours – cold is a better option.
Applying a cold pack to a fresh injury may not ease pain quite as well as heat, but it does help cut through the inflammatory process; reducing swelling and inflammation early on can help speed healing and reduce pain down the line. For the chronic pain of arthritis, however, moist heat can help with joint stiffness and muscle soreness by increasing blood flow.
What’s the best schedule for icing and heating? For the first day or two, ice the area at least three times per day, for about 10 minutes at a time; spread it out through the day – morning, afternoon, and before you go to bed. On the first day you may want to ice it more frequently, as much as once every two hours depending on the severity. You can use an ice pack, a cold damp towel, or bags of frozen vegetables. After the first two or three days, or when the swelling has gone down, you can move on to heat. A heating pad or heat wrap is a good source of dry heat; 15 to 20 minutes at a time is a good rule of thumb, but remove it sooner if your skin becomes uncomfortably hot. Spending time in a shower, bath, or hot tub provides moist heat that’s especially helpful for chronic back pain.