Is ice or heat the best treatment for back pain?

Most people are not too sure about whether ice or heat is the best treatment for back pain. The fact is that both can be beneficial and it depends on the nature of the injury. Here are some of the basics and which treatment is best in a particular situation. The safest option for back pain is ice. It is ideal for back pain or injuries that are less than 24 hrs old. The same applies if there is swelling at the spot. Ice tends to reduce pain and also closes the smaller blood vessels (vasoconstriction).


The Ice Effect


This limits the swelling that appears soon after the injury and calms stressed nerves, which eventually alleviates the pain. Cold or ice packs should never be used directly on the skin as they might cause frostbite. The fact is that cold packs tend to be colder than normal ice and they should not be used for over 30 minutes. If you are using ice cubes, they should be rubbed over the back till they melt down completely. Alternatively, a bag of any frozen vegetables can also be placed on the affected area.


The Heat Effect


Heat promotes muscle-relaxation, and it is best used along the mid-back, lower back and the neck. Muscle spasms and soreness are the commonest symptoms that can be treated with heat. This is helpful in conditions like osteoarthritis as it increases the range of motion and resultantly reduces pain. Heat treatment should also be applied in 30-minute intervals only. Whenever heat is applied over any area that has been injured, swelling or inflammation can worsen as it leads to opening up of the small blood vessels (vasodilatation).


Moist heat is considered to be the most-effective form of heat treatment. Physical therapists generally use a machine called a hydrocollator. This keeps the hot pack in 160° water. Numerous layers of towels are placed between the skin and the hot pack. In case a heating pad is being used, a cloth layer should be placed between it and the back and the setting should be at the minimum level and the heat should be adequate. Some doctors suggest that ice and heat should be use in alternation.  This is known as contrast bath therapy and is very popular with athletes who need to reduce any swelling that occurs in the extremities.


The Best Technique


This technique is known to be effective in reducing swelling rapidly. However, it is not meant to be used to reduce pain such as the one that occurs in the back. For a person who is suffering from persistent back pain, there has to be a break between repeat cooling sessions. The best way is to judge the time for the next session is to wait till the skin in the affected area recovers to its normal temperature and appearance. In the event of an injury to the back, it is important you consult a doctor without delay. You might be prescribed certain anti-inflammatory medication and rest.