Hot water bottle covered with ice cubes. Horizontal.

Is heat or cold better for relieving back pain?

When you have an aching back, should you reach for your hot water bottle or that bag of peas lurking in the freezer?

Heat and cold can relieve back pain, but each treatment works best in specific situations. Let’s look at when to use ice therapy and when to use heat therapy to get the right results.

Cold: best for acute pain

Cold is best for acute injuries like sprains and strains. For example, if you overexert yourself during exercise or by bending over too much while gardening.

Ice constricts the blood vessels in the affected area, reducing swelling, bruising, and inflammation. It also causes a numbing effect that minimises any pain. It’s no wonder that athletes dive straight into an ice bath after a strenuous training session!

You can get special ice packs designed for injuries, or alternatively, use a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel. Don’t ice an injury for longer than 20 minutes, and never apply anything icy directly to the skin, as this can cause ice burns and skin damage.

Heat: best for long-term pain

Heat is best for long-term, chronic back pain. For example, if you have ongoing aches and pains after sitting in your office chair for too long.

Heat boosts blood circulation, helping your back to heal more quickly. It also relieves muscle tension, reducing stiffness and aches.

You can get heating patches and wraps that you can apply to your back, which provide hours of low-level heat. Alternatively, you can use a hot water bottle with a cover on it or dive into a hot shower!

Studies have shown that moist heat is better for back pain than dry heat, but as no two bodies are alike, go with what works best for you.

While heat is fantastic for relieving back pain, it’s essential to make sure you don’t use anything too hot, as this can irritate and potentially damage your skin. If you have diabetes or a nerve condition like neuropathy, you must be extra careful as it can be harder to tell if your skin is getting too hot.

Can you use both?

Yes! You can use a combination of heat and cold to improve back pain.

Let’s say you’ve run a marathon, and you can feel your back starting to hurt. Icing your back as soon as possible after the race helps reduce the risk of tissue damage and offers pain relief. It’s important to use ice first, as heat can open up your blood vessels, making inflammation worse.

After 48 hours of using ice, use heat to encourage your back to heal and alleviate muscle spasms. Alternate between heat and ice therapy as needed until you’re ready to lace up your trainers and hit the track again. Heat and cold are great for relieving back pain, but it’s important to use them in the right way and the right order. Follow the guidelines in this article, and you’ll feel better in no time at all!

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