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Ice or heat for lower back pain: Which is better?

Which is better for lower back pain: heat or ice?

It’s a common question, and if you’re struggling with sciatica or another back-pain-causing condition, you’re probably wondering the same thing.

Keep reading for answers.

Which is better for lower back pain: heat or ice?

Alternating heat and ice is typically more effective than using either on its own. For best results, switch off between the two in 20-minute intervals until the swelling subsides. While ice reduces inflammation, which you’d think is what you want, some inflammation is actually good. Applying heat to your sore back for small amounts of time helps send more blood to it, and that blood can help repair damage and promote healing.

We’ll get into the nitty-gritty of the heat vs. ice debate below and talk more about why alternating can help you manage your back pain.

Why is ice good for back pain?

Ice is universally used as a pain relief method because it slows down your circulation. This is good, because inflammation is caused by an increase of blood flow to the affected area. Inflammation often leads to pain because the extra blood — plus any waste products created as your white blood cells battle infection — can press up against your nerve endings.

By reducing the inflammation in your back, you can also start to reduce your pain.

What about heat?

Heat is also recommended for treating injuries, but not necessarily for pain relief. The problem with heat is that it increases inflammation, sending more blood to the affected area. As we discussed above, this can be good, as the extra blood brings white blood cells to help fight infection and oxygen to help restore damaged tissue.

However, this brings more blood to the area, causing swelling and potentially more pain. Therefore, we don’t recommend applying heat to your lower back unless you are alternating it with ice.

How to do hot and cold therapy for lower back pain

Here are a few tips on using hot and cold therapy to manage your lower back pain:

  • Start with ice — This will slow your circulation and reduce inflammation immediately, so start there. Applying heat first will cause more swelling on top of what you already have, which will leave you with more work to do when you try to reduce your swelling.
  • Have patience — This technique takes commitment. You may have to alternate ice and heat for two hours or more before your swelling subsides, so get comfortable on the couch and set aside some time to sit there for a while.
  • Be resourceful — You should consider getting some ice pack wraps and a heating pad from the pharmacy, but if that’s not possible, you can make some with things you have around the house. Towels come in handy, as you can soak one in hot water when you need heat and freeze one when you need a flexible “ice pack.”

More treatment options for lower back pain

Here are some other effective treatments, in addition to heat and ice, that can help you manage your lower back pain:

  • Rest — Don’t underestimate the value of relaxation when you’re struggling with back pain (or any type of pain). Moving around and putting pressure on your back can irritate your muscles and cause further swelling, causing you to stay in pain. Rest gives your body time to repair itself.
  • Elevate your back — The inflammatory process produces lymph fluid that accumulates in the affected area. Elevating your back helps drain this fluid away, taking some of the pressure off your nerves. Try lying on your stomach with a pillow under your stomach to keep your back propped up. This is one of the easiest ways to elevate the middle part of your body.
  • Talk to a physical therapist — If you struggle with chronic lower back pain, ice and heat are only temporary fixes. A physical therapist can help you to correct any postural issues that are leading to this pain so you don’t have to spend your weekends on the couch switching back and forth between a heating pad and an ice pack. They will also walk you through stretches and exercises that can help you find pain relief.

Agile Virtual PT gives you access to physical therapy at home

Don’t have the time to venture to a physical therapy clinic? Or maybe you’re just in too much pain to leave the house?

Agile Virtual PT is an online physical therapy option that allows you to see a professional physical therapist without leaving your home. We have specialists available at every hour of the day, so you can schedule an appointment at whatever time works best for you.

Ice and heat only go so far when it comes to lower back pain — let us help you treat your pain at its source.Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.