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Should I Use Hot or Cold Therapy for Lower Back Pain?

Should I Use Hot or Cold Therapy for Lower Back Pain?

Table of Contents

    1. Introduction
    2. Causes of Lower Back Pain
    3. Tips for Lowering the Risk of Back Pain
    4. Diagnosis and Treatment of Back Pain
    5. Non-Pharmacological Treatment of Back Pain
    6. Commonly Used Back Pain Remedies
    7. Conclusion

    Lower back pain is one of the most common health issues. It is estimated that at any given time about 31 million Americans are living with back pain. It is the leading cause of disability globally. It is also the leading reason for missed days at the job.

    During the year, almost half of the population may experience some kind of back pain issue. The lifetime risk of developing back pain is as high as 80%.

    Causes of lower back pain

    Most of the time back pain is not linked to severe disease condition; but rather due to mechanical reasons.

    The back is a hugely complicated structure made of a number of bones, joints, muscles, and ligaments. Moreover, a healthy back needs to be supported by many other muscles like the pelvic and abdominal muscles.

    Sprains and strains of the ligaments and muscles are the cause of back pain in most cases. People with a sedentary lifestyle, poor posture, obesity, and stress are at higher risk of back pain.

    In a very small number of cases, back pain may occur due to a severe accident, injury, slipped disc, herniated disk, sciatic nerve pain, or even cancer.

    Sometimes disease of internal organs may also cause backaches like kidney stones, kidney infections, blood clots, or osteoporosis.


    Tips for lowering the risk of back pain:

    • Stay active and maintain a healthy body weight
    • A balanced diet may help keep back stronger and fight pain
    • Avoid prolonged spells of inactivity
    • Always warm up before any physical exertion like gardening
    • Wear comfortable shoes
    • Sleep on a firm mattress
    • Use the right posture when lifting heavy things
    • Quit smoking as it damages small blood vessels that supply blood to spinal muscles
    • Consider physiotherapy if you have a weak back

    Diagnosis and treatment of back pain

    Apart from physical examination, imaging is frequently used to determine the cause of back pain.

    Some of the most commonly used methods to diagnose conditions leading to back pain are X-ray imaging, MRI scan, blood tests, bone scans, and nerve studies. Such tests may help exclude more severe causes of back pain.

    Most common treatment of back pain is the use of over-the-counter pain medications. However, in severe cases, one may need prescription drugs like opiates, muscle relaxants, antidepressants, and even injectables.

    Fortunately, most people will make a complete recovery after an episode of back pain.

    • 60% make a full recovery in 3 weeks
    • 90% make take about 8 weeks to recover
    • 95% will recover within 12 weeks
    • Merely less than 1% will take longer as back pain in those cases occur due to more severe reasons

    When to Use Ice or Heat

    Non-pharmacological treatment of back pain

    Since back pain can be a chronic condition, pharmacological treatment may have numerous side effects. Therefore, many people prefer natural back pain remedies.

    Some of the commonly used back pain remedies include massage, acupuncture, yoga, Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). 

    One of the most readily available treatments of back pain is hot or cold packs. Both of them help, but they differ in effects. In the case of back pain, applying heat will help in most cases. However, it does not mean that ice therapy has no value.

    Use of cold packs or ice is most effective when applied early to an injury, usually within the first 48 hours. It can help reduce swelling and acute sharp pain.

    When ice is applied immediately after an injury, it decreases the risk of inflammation getting worse.  It is especially useful in reducing pain in more severe injuries like a torn muscle or ligament.

    However, once the acute phase is over, and pain is in control. Heat works better for accelerating recovery and overcoming local muscular spasms.

    Heat is excellent in reducing local muscle stiffness which is frequently the cause of chronic and long-lasting back pains. Heat has other benefits too; many people find it soothing and relaxing. Heat may also help accelerate healing by improving local blood flow/circulation.

    In short, ice therapy is useful for acute and severe pain. It is better during the first few days.

    Heat is better in chronic back pain, for relaxing and improving healing.

    Heat can be applied even in the absence of pain as it helps relax local muscles. One can continue to use heat even after recovery, to strengthen the spine, to keep it warm, and reduce the chances of future sprains and strains.

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