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If you are struggling with back pain, you may wonder whether ice or heat is better to treat it. It’s a tricky question to answer, because it depends on what is causing your back pain and where the pain is located. Either heat or ice may be better for some back pain, and actually be detrimental to other pain. 

Before we continue to unpack whether ice or heat is better for back pain, it’s important to remind you that the best advice will come from your doctor, who will have the best understanding of what may be behind your back pain. 

Let’s review some general principles for when to pick either ice or heat for back pain, and then we’ll look at the most common causes of back pain to help you pick between ice and heat.

When to Use Ice for Back Pain

Generally speaking, ice is better than heat for back pain that may be caused by an acute injury. The Cleveland Clinic says that, in the battle of back pain, “Ice wins to shut down swelling, inflammation and pain early on where heat may actually make an injury worse.” 

So if you pulled a muscle this morning while working in the garden, apply ice quickly (or a bag of frozen vegetables)!

When to Use Heat for Back Pain

On the other hand, if you have chronic back pain, heat may be better than ice. The Cleveland Clinic indicates that “If you’re dealing with lingering injuries (older than 6 weeks) then it’s okay to use heat. The increased blood flow relaxes tight muscles and relieves aching joints. This is especially helpful to improve range of motion on a joint that maybe isn’t moving as well.”

If you live with ongoing back pain, heat may be your answer to temporary relief and stretching safely.

When to Alternate Between Ice and Heat for Back Pain

Some back pain is caused by a variety of factors, including both muscles and the spine itself. This means that you may want to try both ice and heat for your back pain. The University of Michigan says, “You may also want to try switching between heat and cold. Use heat for 15 to 20 minutes, then a few hours later use ice for 10 to 15 minutes.” 

Dr. Susan Baker explains this a bit further: “In the case of icing and heating back muscles it’s important to note that although a hot shower might feel good, the heat might actually be increasing inflammation by opening up blood vessels. Icing and heating in combination breaks the cycles in which muscle spasms cause pain.”

With these generalities in mind, let’s examine some of the most common back pain causes and discuss whether heat or ice is preferable. 

Ice vs heat for lower back pain

For pain in your lower back, consider whether the pain may be caused by an injury, such as a pulled or strained muscle, or if it is chronic. For chronic pain, heat therapy might be best. Dry heat can be applied through a heating pad and moist heat by means of a warm bath or shower. Heat will relax those muscles.

But if your pain is caused by an injury, ice is the better option. In fact, heat may make your back pain worse. 

Heat or ice for upper back pain

Both ice and heat can help upper back pain, but, like lower back pain, which to use depends on the timing and probably causes of your pain. Healthline suggests that you, “use a cold pack and anti-inflammatory pain relief for the first three days after the pain starts. After that, alternate applying heat and cold to your injury.” 

Ice or heat for back pain caused by a herniated disc

Again, here, much is to be said about how long you have been in pain. Both ice and heat may help relieve herniated disk pain. VerywellHealth says that both cold therapy and heat therapy may help a great deal because “by helping to relax the muscles of the back, ice and heat applications can relieve muscle spasm and provide significant pain relief.”

Heat or ice for sciatica

Like the causes of pain mentioned above, doctors recommend both ice and heat for sciatica

As The Mayo Clinic delineates, “Try cold packs initially to reduce inflammation. Apply an ice pack to the painful areas for about 20 minutes several times a day. After two or three days, apply heat with a heat lamp or a heating pad on the lowest setting. Alternating warm and cold packs may provide some relief.”

As you can see, the answer to the question of whether to use ice or heat for back pain is, pretty decidedly, it depends! But basically, both! 
If you are suffering from chronic back pain, don’t wait to find relief and get back to living. Contact our experts at Desert Spine & Scoliosis Center today.