I’m sure we all know that you can effectively relieve your back pain by the application of heat and cold, especially muscular back pain. However, the most suitable choice will depend upon the reason for your pain. So, in this departure from my normal format post on back pain blog, I’m going to try and help you determine the best choice between hot or cold in a particular circumstance.
If your back problem is due to some type of back muscle injury then the first thing to do is establish if you have any inflammation or swelling. If there is no swelling then it’s probably best to use heat to relieve the pain. This is because heat increases the muscles’ flexibility and elasticity. If you are hoping to maintain a level of activity then heat will be more suitable as it will encourage movement in the muscles without undue pain.
As heat increases blood flow and skin temperature, you can apply an appropriate source of heat to the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Moist heat seems to work best, at least it does for me, and so you could use a hot towel. I use the microwave, having soaked a towel and wrung it out a bit, but be careful until you get the timing right, it gets very hot very quickly. You don’t want third-degree burns. You can also use a gel pack which you can either heat in hot water or freeze to use as a cold application. These are pretty useful and I also use one myself, more for cold than hot, but that’s just my personal preference.
If you just put something like a heat pack or cold pack into your search engine you’ll find lots of options, but you don’t have to spend your money. You know about the towel and I bet most of you have a bag of frozen peas or similar in the freezer. Anyway, to get back to the point, there will be times when application of cold will be more effective in reducing your pain. If your back pain is caused by an obvious injury where swelling/inflammation has occurred then cold will be more appropriate. The cold will cause the blood vessels to narrow and that will help limit any internal tissue bleeding (bruising) and swelling. Whatever you use to apply the cold: gel pack, frozen vegetables or ice, wrap the source in a cloth to avoid ice or freezer burn. Again, apply for 15 to 20 minutes before allowing the skin to return to normal temperature before reapplying. You can do this as often as you like for as long as you like.
If things haven’t improved after say three or four days it would be wise to get medical advice. If your back pain is caused by unaccustomed or excess (for you) physical exertion then cold is usually the way to go. Athletes tend to use cold applications to relieve muscle pain caused by over exercise and muscle stress. If you have a back problem then the application of either heat or cold can be useful in reducing the severity of the pain. After assessing your problem you can decide which of the alternatives seems best for your situation.
Although it is more generally believed that applying cold to any muscle injury is best, in fact for chronic back pain heat works better, and I speak from experience here. You also need to bear in mind that what works best for one person may not necessarily be the most suitable treatment for another. The sensible way is to test both hot and cold, but when you do, use the cold therapy first as the application of heat could worsen any inflammation or swelling, where the cold treatment tends to be gentler.