Heat or Ice for Back Pain? | Common Back Injuries and Treatment

November 19, 2021

Heat or Ice for Back Pain? | Common Back Injuries and Treatment

Hot and cold therapy is a convenient and effective alternative method for pain relief, especially for back pain. 

For most back injuries and chronic back pain cases, supportive methods are crucial because of the highly addictive nature of opioids and because pain medications aren't sustainable in the long run.

In this article, we'll talk about the many causes of back pain and how to manage it. We also aim to answer - is heat or ice better for back pain? (Spoiler alert: it depends. But read on to find out why). 

Why does my back hurt?

Your back may hurt for a couple of possible reasons. Your posture and everyday habits are undoubtedly the most common culprit. It's a known fact that working on a desk 8 hours a day subjects you to back pain so much more than other jobs out there. 

Other lifestyle factors such as your weight and level of activity play a huge role, too. We won't dive into that in this article, but you can check out another piece of ours that talks about the most common causes of back pain.

If you think that your back pain is more serious, it might be a back injury. Back injuries can happen because of stress, inflammation, chronic pain, or some underlying condition.

A pulled muscle, lumbar sprain, fibromyalgia, osteoporosis, and arthritis are some of the ways you can injure your back. Let's talk about them one by one and see if any of these apply to you. 

Do note that this is not the same as a diagnosis! Seek medical help immediately if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, and it's always better to check with your medical care provider to give you the correct and proper treatment.

Muscle strain

When you feel that you "pulled a muscle," you're probably experiencing a muscle strain. A muscle strain occurs when your muscles are overused or overstretched. 

Symptoms of muscle strain:

  • Pain and swelling 
    • Pain can either be an intense or dull pain
    • Pain occurs when the muscle is activated and goes away when muscles are at rest
  • Tenderness
  • Muscle spasms or cramping
  • Stiffness or tightness

It's typically nothing to be worried about. It occurs when we work too hard at the gym or accidentally lift more than we can handle. Usually, muscle strains can be relieved by resting and hot/cold compresses. However, see your doctor if you experience the following symptoms:

  • Significant loss of mobility
  • Severe pain
  • Pain that radiates to your legs
  • Pain that persists for more than one week
  • If the patient is pregnant, breastfeeding, very old, or very young

Lumbar Sprain

If overworked muscles cause muscle sprain, overworked ligaments cause a lumbar sprain. Ligaments are connective tissues that bridge two bones together. When they overstretch, they can cause the following symptoms:

Symptoms of lumbar sprain:

  • Lower back pain
  • Muscle spasms or cramping
  • Tenderness

Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you experience intense symptoms such as:

  • Significant loss of mobility
  • Severe pain
  • Pain that radiates to your legs
  • Pain that persists for more than one week

Disc Injury

Each bone within your spine is connected and cushioned with a rubbery structure called a disk. 

A herniated disk is when one of the cushions weakens, pushes out, or tears through the disk. ¼ of herniated disks aren't symptomatic, and these types usually come with age. Disc injuries can be relieved with exercises, physical therapy, and surgery (although surgery isn't always necessary).

Symptoms of a herniated disk:

  • Back pain, especially when bending or sitting for long periods
  • Numbness
  • Pain that radiates to arms or legs

Chronic Conditions

Chronic conditions can subject a person to chronic back pain. Let's talk about two specific types: fibromyalgia and spinal arthritis.


Fibromyalgia is characterized by sensitivity to pressure and pain. There's a lot of stigma around this unseen condition which affects about 4 Million US Adults. We've written about fibromyalgia in detail. If you want to read the entire piece, you can click here.

People who have fibromyalgia can experience debilitating back pain. Apart from that, sufferers can also experience the following symptoms:

  • Pain and stiffness all over the body.
  • Fatigue and tiredness.
  • Depression and anxiety.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Problems with thinking, memory, and concentration.
  • Headaches, including migraines.

Spinal Arthritis

Spinal arthritis is a form of joint degradation that affects the spine. 

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Back and neck pain
  • Loss of mobility
  • Swelling and tenderness
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Numbness


Osteoporosis is a form of bone degradation that affects your whole body. Since the spine is a series of bones, having osteoporosis means that your back is the most susceptible to pain. Warning signs of osteoporosis include:

  • Weakness
  • Brittle nails
  • Bones that break easily

Relieving Back Injuries

Remember to seek professional care when your back pain lasts for more than two weeks. Once you feel a creeping ache, here are some of the remedies you can try to relieve back injuries: 

  • Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is hands down one of the most effective ways to ease your back pain and provides a long-term tool you can use whenever the need arises. If you can't visit a clinic near you, there are helpful videos you can find online:

  • Lifestyle changes

There are lifestyle changes you can apply to ease the pain from your back. For example, you can purchase lumbar support for your office chair and car, use ergonomic tools, lose weight to relieve tension off your back and exercise more.

  • Relaxation Methods

Relaxation methods like meditation and yoga are proven to affect back pain positively. The mind-body connection is undeniable and so having these tools in handy allows you to manage pain better.

Don't discount the role of internal & mental imbalance when it comes to pain management. Even talking to a clinical psychologist is proven to be helpful in a few cases of back pain.  

  • OTC and Prescription Meds

For the initial manifestations of pain, take OTC meds. The top OTC medications for back pain are Acetaminophen (Tylenol), Ibuprofen (Advil), and Naproxen (Aleve). NSAIDs or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs also work well. When these over-the-counter drugs don't work, speak to your doctor for prescription meds.

  • Hot and cold therapy

Because of some complications regarding the long-term use of painkillers and opioids, alternative methods are highly encouraged. Hot and cold therapy is convenient, affordable, non-invasive, and effective in dealing with pain.

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Is heat or ice better for back pain?

Both ice and heat works for back pain - it depends on how you use it. Here are some essential things you need to consider: 

  • Use ice for first aid and to curb initial signs of inflammation

Cold compress works by reducing the blood flow to the inflamed area. Ice is best during the first 24-48 hours of an injury. This is because cool temperature triggers vasoconstriction in the body. Vasoconstriction works by restricting the blood flow in a specific area by minimizing the blood's passageways. When an injury occurs, blood rushes to the affected area to deliver healing bodies to the site, triggering inflammation. Using a cold compress can significantly decrease this response and relieve any pain.

  • Use hot therapy to regain flexibility and mobility.

Hot therapy helps in muscle recovery. Once the inflammation has subsided, heat therapy triggers vasodilation, dilating the blood vessels to allow more blood flow. An increased blood flow makes way for healing bodies to move through the injury quicker and promote recovery.

This is why you shouldn't use hot therapy during the first 24 hours of an injury because it will aggravate the body's natural response to inflammation. 

When should you not use heat or ice?
Although hot and cold therapy is a natural method for pain relief, there are still some cases wherein it does more harm than good. Examples of this are when you have open wounds in extreme cases or when you have skin that's easily sensitized. 
Heat therapy is also not recommended for people with diabetes, poor circulation, or spinal cord injuries. They are susceptible to burns, and any change in blood flow can impact them negatively.
  • Apply the compress for 20 minutes at a time only

Subjecting your body to thermotherapy for longer than the recommended time can make you susceptible to burns and frostbite.

  • Take preventive measures 

Still, prevention is always better than cure. Take care of your diet and move your body as regularly as possible.

But when the pain does come, don't forget to have your trusted medical products to support you. You can use a heating pad when you know it will be a cold day and your arthritis will act up, or for any chronic pain that is affected by the weather. You can also use cold packs after an intense workout to avoid body aches later on. Stay pain-free with IceWraps!

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