Cold and heat therapy may both provide effective relief from your lower back pain—but how do you know which one to use?
Ice in the first 24 to 72 hours
As a general rule, it is best to apply cold therapy to your lower back in the first 24 to 72 hours following your lower back injury. The application of cold therapy can minimize your inflammation and swelling—which in turn may reduce your pain. In addition, ice can decrease your tissue damage and numb your sore tissues.
There are numerous options for cold therapy, including a frozen bag of vegetables, frozen gel packs, and a frozen towel. Regardless of which option you choose, make sure to note the following precautions:
- To avoid ice burn, place a cloth between your skin and whichever source of cold you select.
- Apply cold therapy for no more than 20 minutes at a time. You can apply cold therapy 8 to 10 times per 24 hour period.
Use heat to encourage healing
After your initial swelling and inflammation has subsided, heat therapy can be utilized to encourage healing in your lower back. The application of heat therapy stimulates blood flow to the area, which brings restorative oxygen and nutrients. Additionally, heat can inhibit the transmission of pain signals to your brain and decrease your stiffness.
There are two basic categories for heat therapy: dry and moist. Dry heat may leave your skin feeling dehydrated, but many people feel it is easier to apply. Heat therapy may be more difficult to apply, but it can aid in the penetration of heat into your muscles.
If you have diabetes, an open wound, or dermatitis it is best to avoid heat therapy altogether.
What about chronic lower back pain?
All of the above advice addresses when to use heat and ice following the first occurrence of lower back pain after an injury. But what about chronic lower back pain?
The simple answer is that there is no right answer. Finding the balance between cold and heat therapy for chronic lower back pain is a process of trial and error—and what might work for one patient may not for another. But when it comes to exercise, many people with chronic back pain find heat therapy helps to warm up their muscles beforehand, while cold therapy helps with pain and inflammation afterwards.
Additionally, if you do suffer from extended or chronic lower back pain make sure to receive care from a qualified medical professional. Relying on self-care for too long may make your back pain worse.