When should you use hot or cold therapy for your back pain? Find out here!

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When should you use hot or cold therapy for your back pain? Find out here!

So, you’re feeling the pain on your back. Should you use heat or cold therapy? Next to the dating scene, this is perhaps the hot-and-cold situation that puzzles people the most. But you can’t afford to be further confused when you’re in pain, so we’ve done the research for you on what you need to know about using hot or cold packs for your back pain. 

First, some facts about what’s cracking your back. Worldwide, more than 10 percent of people suffer from lower back pain. In America alone, approximately 8 out of 10 people will have back problems at some point in their lives. In fact, according to the American Chiropractic Association, back pain accounts for more than 264 million lost work days in one year. To help you realise how big this figure is: that’s two full working days for every full-time worker in the United States.

People spend millions getting relief for their back pain. For minor back pain, it’s great to know that one of the fastest and most effective home remedies is the ice pack. 

However, it’s not merely as simple as getting cold therapy. One of the most asked questions regarding back pain is whether to use heat or cold therapy for a sore back?

To get an answer to this question, it’s first good to know how cold and heat therapy works. 

How does heat therapy work?

Let’s first be clear: heat therapy does not mean scalding hot. Rather, it’s just a touch over that really warm temperature (but not overly hot). Heat therapy does its magic by dilating blood vessels and improving circulation and blood flow. This helps sore muscles open up and relax.  It’s been said that the most common cause of back pain is non-specific muscular pain, which is basically a muscle strain.

 In a nutshell, heat therapy can relax and soothe muscles and can even heal damaged tissue. 

When not to use heat: Heat therapy is used to help relax and loosen muscles, as well as to stimulate blood flow to the affected area. It’s therefore not recommended to use heat treatment right after an injury. It will make the swelling and pain worse. 

How does cold therapy work?

Cold therapy, on the other hand, works by reducing blood flow to a particular area, meaning if there’s inflammation in an injured or painful area, cold temperature will help reduce the swelling that causes pain. 

The low temperature can also temporarily reduce nerve activity (feeling), which may relieve the sensation of pain. Cold therapy is generally used immediately after an injury in order to reduce inflammation. 

When not to use ice therapy: Ice is best used on recent injuries. When the pain or injury is no longer new, ice packs will rarely be of help. If your back pain is caused by increased muscle tension, this can be aggravated by cold treatment or therapy. Applying ice to tense or stiff muscles in the back (or any part of the body for that matter) may make the pain worse.

So, when should you use heat or cold therapy for your back?

Cool first, then heat.

Let’s leave the “warm up” for working out and ovens for baking. As a general rule, ice or cold packs are for fresh injuries. Heat packs are for stiff and aching muscles.

 Use cold therapy first if your back pain is a direct result of an injury. Blood vessels will constrict when body temperature is lowered, and this will reduce swelling and decrease inflammation. 

Once the inflammation has gone down, you can now use heat therapy. This will improve the flexibility of tissues and muscle movement. The warm temperature will also stimulate blood circulation on the back area, which will help heal injured tissues. 

The heat will go on…for certain back pains.

For chronic back pain, like those going on for more than four weeks, continuous, low-level heat will provide constant pain relief. A randomised control trial has found that those with lower back pain who exercised and used low-level heat therapy had less pain than those who didn’t. 

Cool down

Sometimes, back pain can occur due to extensive and strenuous physical exercise, or if you suddenly tried a new type of workout. When you experience this, it’s advised to use cold therapy immediately after the physical activity to reduce inflammation and pain. After 24 hours, you can then use heat therapy to facilitate tissue healing. 

Combine hot and cold in your routine

The use of hot and cold therapy can be combined in your everyday routine. If you wake up with stiff back muscles, having a heat pad near your bed and using it first thing in the morning will be helpful. If, at the end of the day, you have over-exerted your back through working out or physical chores, it’s best to apply a cold pack.

There are plenty of packs that can be used hot or cold for your back.

For advanced players only: play hot and cold 

This is probably the only time we will encourage you to play hot and cold as a confusion strategy. Contrasting therapy is sometimes used in athletes as a rehabilitation method. Normally achieved with water, contrasting therapy means to quickly change the tissue temperature from hot to cold and back again. Many find this stimulating and is mostly used in injury recovery. 

For both hot and cold packs, it’s best to keep in mind that you should not apply heat or cold directly to the skin. Hot or cold packs and compresses should only be applied for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. 

Are you suffering from back pain? Have you tried hot or cold therapy? Send us a message and we’d love to hear about your back pain remedy experience!

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