Is Heat Or Ice Better For Back Pain

You may be surprised to find the answer is actually a matter of personal preference. In fact, while most health professionals believe there are benefits to using hot, cold or combination of both therapies, there is no actual proof of whether heat or ice is better for back pain.

However, many who suffer from back pain do find relief by either applying ice, heat or alternating between the two.  Both treatments are considered to resolve different issues but ultimately, with a little testing, you can decide which helps you the most.  As a general rule of thumb, ice is used for an acute injury for a few days whereas heat is used for chronic or more persistent pain.

Either way, if applying one or the other or both does not provide you with the relief you so desperately need, I suggest you discuss the lack of improvement with your doctor and proceed from there.  Probably the most significant benefit of heat and ice treatments is that they are both relatively inexpensive even if you purchase commercial products for convenience.

Hot Tub Photo Credit:  By 663highland (663highland) [CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Heat therapy works by increasing blood flood and relaxing muscles.  Muscle spasms, one of the most excruciating discomforts of back pain, may be most reduced by heat treatments.  Further benefits include increased oxygen to the affected area which helps to heal any damaged tissues as well decrease stiffness and increase flexibility.

There are many types of heat therapy (dry or moist) including heating pads, saunas, hot baths, steamed towels, moist heating packs, back wraps, hot showers, hot water bottles, hot tubs  (the one in the photo above was taken in Japan but maybe we can find something closer!) and gel packs.

is-heat-or-ice-better-for-back-pain-ice-cubes Photo Credit: By Darren Hester ( [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ice treatments are typically recommended to reduce inflammation and swelling.  Cold therapy may also numb the affected area and, thereby, alleviate pain.  It is most commonly used immediately and for a few days following the initial onset of an injury.  Furthermore, ice may help to increase mobility to get you back on your feet faster.

Ice therapy treatments can also be applied in a number of different ways including frozen towels, sponges, rice or vegetables as well as by commercial ice packs, baggies filled with ice cubes and ice massages (rubbing ice on the backache which usually requires a “helper”).

Another option is to alternate between heat and ice to achieve maximum relief from back pain.  But if your treating yourself at home, make sure you allow enough time between the two treatments for your skin to return to its normal temperature which can range from at least thirty minutes up to an hour.

Caution:  There are a significant number of medical conditions, that may or may not be related to back pain, where using either heat or ice would be ill-advised by medical experts.   Also the proper application of hot or cold therapy is essential including protecting yourself from burns and frostbite, treating for no longer than 15-20 minutes at a time in most cases and not falling asleep during treatments.  Always check with your healthcare professional for recommendations appropriate to your situation.

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4 Responses

  1. Rainey
    Rainey March 21, 2014 at 3:31 pm | | Reply

    This is valid information for back pain sufferers. You are certainly correct in noting that what works is a matter of preference. ( And of trial and error.) I once experienced a back injury that responded only to ice.

  2. Cindy
    Cindy May 16, 2014 at 3:35 am | | Reply

    I also suffer from chronic pain. I have tried ice and found it useful when I first was injured. I still use ice on occasion especially when I have swelling for a quick, but very temporary fix. What I use consistently is heat. I turn my electric mattress pad on every night and keep it on (even in the summer – and yes, I sometimes get sweaty). This helps to relax me and lessens my pain. Good suggestion for people to try both to discover what works best for them.

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