Back Pain: When To Use Ice & When To Use Heat – Body Works Physical Therapy
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Back Pain: When To Use Ice & When To Use Heat

Heat or Ice Back Pain

One of the most common questions I get asked on a daily basis that confuses many people is:

Should I use ice or heat to ease my back pain?”

Rightly or wrongly, 9 out of 10 of my clients favour heat – whether that’s a nice hot water bottle or a soak in the bath – to try and ease their back pain.

One of the key reasons is the simple fact that we live in Minnesota where, as you know, it can be really cold, and they don’t like the thought of cold ice on their back.

As you can appreciate, every health concern and injury is different. Sometimes it’s ice to cool it down, or heat to help relax it… It can be very confusing!

When Do We Use Ice?

There’s one time in particular we say to use ice and that’s when something just happened and it’s very painful, likely hot and maybe swollen.

This is an ‘acute’ injury, acute meaning it just happened. For example, an ankle sprain or pulled muscle.

The time to use ice for your back pain is when your back has suddenly ‘gone’ and you’re in a lot of pain, or you’ve overdone it and your back becomes very painful towards the end of the day.

Your body is actually very clever.

Let’s use an ankle sprain as an example… When you sprain your ankle your body will immediately try and protect itself. This is why you get swelling and it becomes very hot and painful.

The swelling is your body’s natural cushion to protect the sprain.

The pain and heat comes from the inflammation.

This is your body’s way of trying to protect and heal itself, if something’s painful – you’re not going to want to move it or touch it, are you?

The same thing is happening in your back too – you just can’t see it.

So your ankle, back, or whatever you’ve hurt can start to heal without any more damage.

So that’s WHY it happens.

But this pain can be worse than the actual injury itself, so cooling it down with ice is a simple method to help ease the intensity of the pain as soon as possible.

By using the cool ice little and often on the injury (20 minutes every hour or so), the cooling and warming of the injury will help the blood keep flowing around the area to help it heal even quicker.

So now we’ve got an idea of when it’s best to use ice…

When Do We Use Heat?

Try thinking of it like… When something is warm then it’s softer, and when it’s cold then it’s harder (imagine a bar of chocolate. Like most things, when chocolate is warm its softer)… It’s exactly the same with our body’s too.

I always explain to my clients that it’s time to apply heat when you feel more stiff, achy and you need to get things moving – that’s the perfect time to use heat.

First thing on a morning if your back’s feeling really stiff and tight, a hot shower to loosen the muscles also works wonders.

Follow that with some gentle stretches too and you’ll feel a huge difference!

If it’s something that’s been nagging you for some time (chronic), and it’s more stiff and achy rather than painful, then head it the way to go.

The reason it’s stiff and aching is because the muscle and joints are so tight.

Like anything, if you warm it up then it’s more supple. It’s exactly the same with your joints and muscles… Muscles should be able to move, if they are stiff and tight you’re more likely to have an injury by over stretching them as they simply can’t stretch as far as you need them to.

It’s the same reason athletes ‘warm up’ before doing their sport – so they don’t pull a muscle!

When we’re asleep at night, our muscles cool down because they aren’t being used, so our blood is going directly to our brain for our dreams and to our stomach to digest our dinner.

So why don’t we ‘warm up’ first thing on a morning to get us ready for the day?

I’m not talking about 10 laps around the neighborhood, just a warm shower followed by a few minutes of simple stretching.

Key things to remember – if it’s just happened and very painful – ice it!

If it’s stiff and tight – warm it up!

For more tips like this to help ease back pain, click here to instantly download your free back pain report:

Back Pain Report
Keith Sullivan
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