Back Pain Relief: What’s Better Heat Or Cold

Back pain relief

Back Pain Relief Is Confusing. We’ll Explain When Heat And Cold Are Better

Back pain relief is something many people long for and wonder about. Almost all of us have lower back issues as we age. Are you suffering from back pain, either from a sports injury or a persistent spinal condition? You know how distracting it can be. In some cases, back pain can be severe, leading to your trying a whole range of different treatments, sometimes to no avail.  For short-term relief, applying ice or a heat pack can help; but depending on the kind of pain you have, one method may be better than the other. In this article, we will explain what provides the best relief, heat or cold. But first what causes back pain?

What Causes Back Pain

Although there are many causes of back pain, we can categorize almost all of them into four main groups. These groups are strains, disc problems, arthritis, and osteoporosis. 

  • Muscles and Ligament Strains – Muscle and ligament strains can be caused by actions such as heavy lifting, sports, or just a sudden, unnatural movement. The likelihood of this type of injury can be maximized if you are in poor physical condition or if you work in a job that puts a constant strain on your back. This injury can result in spasms, a lack of mobility, and significant pain.

  • Arthritis – Osteoarthritis can often affect the lower back and if you develop arthritis in the spine, this could result in a narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis). If this happens, then the bones in your spine may come into contact with your nerves, spinal cord, or both – causing pain. 

  • Osteoporosis – Osteoporosis is a condition when your vertebrae (bones in the spine) become brittle and porous, eventually resulting in a fracture. 

  • Ruptured Discs or displacement – Discs are the soft tissue between your vertebrae, offering protection and helping to absorb any impacts when you move. This tissue can lose its moisture over time which could result in a rupture, or the disc moving out of place. If this happens, then the tissue could apply pressure to your nerves. 

To identify the cause of your back pain, you should consult with a doctor who can analyze the symptoms and recommend treatment. 

When Cold Is Best Back Pain Relief

If you are reading this article, then it is likely you are deciding between hot and cold treatments to help ease your back pain. To determine this, you need to consider the source of the pain and what is causing it. There are three main causes of back pain that are best treated with ice.

Acute Back Injuries

If you are suffering from an acute back injury then applying ice can be an effective pain reliever. Heavy lifting is one of the main causes of an injury of this type, resulting in a strain in the lower back and subsequent pain/ inflammation.

Ice can help reduce this inflammation, which in turn eases the pain. For best results, you should apply ice within two days of when the injury occurred. 

Injuries caused by exercise 

Back pain can also be caused by excessive exercise, or perhaps a strain caused by a sudden movement when playing sports. If you are following an intense exercise regime, then you could experience soreness for a number of days. This is another situation where ice would be recommended to help soothe aches and pains, easing tension in the back.


Sciatica occurs in the sciatic nerve that starts in the lower back and runs down through the buttocks and the legs. Certain conditions can result in pressure on the sciatic nerve, resulting in a flare-up and consequent pain. If you experience a flare-up, then an ice pack should be applied as soon as possible to help reduce inflammation and muscle spasms.

How To Apply Ice For Back Pain Relief

Ice can be applied in several ways to help soothe back pain. 

  • One method is ice massage therapy which is simply the action of rubbing ice over the affected area of the back, helping to numb the area and reduce pain. 
  • You can also apply a cold compress which you can make yourself, or purchase from the store or pharmacy. With a compress, no massaging action is needed and you should just hold it firmly over the affected area.

When using ice to treat back pain, never apply ice directly on your skin for too long as it can result in burning. Always make sure the ice is wrapped in a layer, such as a cloth or plastic bag, as this will help to protect your skin. You should apply ice or a cold compress for just 20 minutes at a time. 

When Heat Is Best For Back Pain Relief

Again, whether you use heat to treat back pain depends entirely on the condition and cause. Heat treatment would be advised if the back pain is severe and has been persistent for 4 weeks or more. Heat can help relax the tissue in the problem area and reduce pain, while also encouraging blood vessel dilation which can speed up the healing process. How should you apply heat to alleviate back pain?

Take a Bath 

A hot bath is one of the easiest ways to provide heat to your back, helping to ease soreness in the muscles and tissue. 

Electric Heating Pads

Electric heating pads plug into the wall and can be used to treat back pain, providing consistent levels of heat to the affected area. The temperatures of these pads can be easily controlled, and a timer can be set so you do not apply heat for too long. This is the most expensive method for applying heat to your back, but also one of the most effective and controlled. 

Hot Water Bottles For Back Pain Relief

Hot water bottles are not only comforting but they can also be used to treat your back pain. If the surface of the bottle is too hot, then you should wrap it in a cloth or any material you have to hand to avoid burning yourself. 

Adhesive Heat Wraps

These wraps can be bought over the counter and can be worn underneath your clothing to provide a consistent, low level of heat for several hours. When using any of the above methods, ensure the heat is not too extreme and do not apply it for more than 15 minutes at a time. 

Alternative Treatments for Back Pain Relief

If you have been trying a range of treatments for a number of months and the pain persists, then your last resort is most likely surgery. Traditional surgery such as decompression and fusion can limit mobility in the back, which is why many doctors are now recommending a TOPS System as one of the most effective back pain and spinal stenosis treatments.

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