Should You Use Heat or Ice For Back Pain?

October 26, 2021

Experts recommend both, but at which times?

Here’s how to tell whether you should use heat or ice for back pain.


Back pain is one of the most common physical complaints. Whether your pain is age-related or the result of an injury, you want to do anything it takes to get you feeling like yourself again. Other than popping painkillers, what are your options?

For those trying to supplement (or avoid) OTC medications, the most common recommendation is usually heat or ice for back pain. But which is best for you?

Read on to find out the difference of ice therapy versus heat therapy, and why you might need both!

therapist holding blue ice pack on patient's lower back


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Applying ice to an injured area constricts the blood vessels, which reduces blood flow and swelling. It also has a numbing effect to relieve pain.

Ice should only be used for acute injuries (such as a sprained ankle or a thrown-out back), where you are experiencing sharp pain and swelling. You will have the best results by applying ice remedies as soon as the injury occurs and keeping the affected area elevated.

Never apply ice directly to your skin, as this can result in an ice burn. Use a gel pack or ice cubes wrapped in a tea towel to provide a barrier. A general rule of thumb is 20 minutes on, and 40 minutes off.

It’s also worth noting that you should not use ice if you are already cold (ice therapy won’t help in this case), have circulation issues, or have a heart condition. Consult your physician first.

blue electric heating pad


While ice restricts blood vessels, heat expands them, increasing blood flow to the area. This extra blood flow speeds up the healing process. When the blood vessels expand, it soothes the sore area and relaxes the muscles.

If you have an acute injury, adding more heat will only cause more inflammation. Never apply heat to an open wound. Heat should only be used for chronic or long-lasting pain, as the increased blood flow can enable your body to heal itself quicker.

A common cause for chronic back pain is sitting at a desk all day. Sitting can cause your shoulders to slump and your back to curve at an unnatural angle (a sit-to-stand desk or a more ergonomic setup can help). Another example would be an old injury that “acts up” once in a while. Think of an old sports injury to the knee or a back issue that happened in a car accident.

Keep in mind that, even when regulated, heating sources can cause burns as well, so 20 minutes on and 40 minutes off is a good place to start. Do not sleep with the heating source on your body either.

As always, speak to a physician if these painful episodes are out of the norm for you.

Should you use heat or ice for back pain?

Should You Use Heat or Ice For Back Pain?

So now that you know what ice and heat therapies are used for, and what types of pain they treat, could it be beneficial to use both?

The answer is yes!

Both of these remedies are used to promote healing, but in different ways. If you work out frequently, play sports, or do a lot of strenuous things at work, both heat and ice can be useful tools in the fight against back pain.

For an acute injury, such as a sprain, strain, or fracture, ice is your best bet to reduce swelling and numb the area. But once the swelling has subsided, or for chronic pain, use heat to increase blood flow, speed up healing, and relax the surrounding muscles.

There are even instances where ice and heat remedies work very well in conjunction with each other.

Some experts recommend alternating between heat and ice for certain injuries. By causing the blood vessels to expand and contract over and over again, you create a “pumping” action that can maximize the effects of both heat and ice.

In fact, studies have even suggested that alternating heat and ice may work better for acute back pain than ice alone.


Are You Experiencing Back Pain?

Back pain may be common, but that doesn’t make it normal.

Pain is the body’s signal that something is wrong. If you are experiencing acute or chronic back pain, don’t let it go untreated! But it’s better to tackle the problem at its roots rather than pop pain relievers all day.

With both remedies readily available in most homes, it’s easy to find relief from lower back pain. But there is another tool that you can use to decrease pain, improve range of motion, and feel better day to day.

With regular adjustments, a chiropractor can help tackle those problem areas and prevent pain from happening in the first place. Chiropractic adjustments are safe, natural, and allow the body to heal itself.

At Oviedo Chiropractic, we pride ourselves on promoting long-lasting, natural pain relief without any unpleasant side effects. Many of our patients have been able to avoid surgery and prescription medications!

Call us anytime for an appointment and we’ll be happy to discuss your back pain issues.

Justin Cough

Dr. Justin Cough, D.C.

Dr. Cough graduated from Palmer College of Chiropractic in Port Orange, FL after receiving his BS in Education from SUNY Oswego. Before becoming a chiropractor, he coached many middle and high school sports teams including football, lacrosse, basketball, and soccer. He is passionate about focusing on our bodies' natural healing mechanisms and helping his patients enjoy the utmost sustainability in their lives.

For some, chiropractic offers relief from pain. For others, it's about feeling and looking good. Call today and see what chiropractic can do for you!

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