Soft tissue strains, muscle sprains, and herniated discs are some of the sources of lower back pain that tend to respond well to heat and ice applications. But before you fill up a hot water bottle or grab an ice pack, it can help to know when it’s best to use heat and when you’re better off going with a cold application. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.
When lower back pain is sudden—like what might happen after exercising or playing sports—or lasts for less than a month, it’s best to start with cold applications first. This is because cold can produce relief immediately by:
• Narrowing blood vessels
• Reducing swelling and inflammation
• Causing a numbing effect that can ease discomfort
After your inflammation is under control, switch over to heat applications. Taking this step increases circulation and gets more beneficial nutrients flowing to the affected part of your lower back. Heat also has the potential to:
• Increase the flexibility of soft tissues
• Boost muscle movement and range of motion
• Facilitate the body’s natural healing abilities
• Prevent the recurrence of lower back pain as tissues heal
If your lower back pain is sticking around for four weeks or more, you may benefit more from applying constant warmth, which is often more effective when it’s delivered as a closed form of heat. There are two main ways to apply this type of heat to your lower back:
• Using a warm/heated blanket – Wrap the blanket around your lower back area to benefit from warmth for a longer period
• Using an adhesive wrap – This is a specially designed heat wrap that adheres to the affected area so you can receive low-level heat safely for several hours
In some instances, you may experience delayed muscle soreness if you overstretch your lower back muscles. This type of pain often develops gradually over a few days as tissue inflammation progresses. You can ward off inflammation by immediately applying ice after exercising or being active. After 24 hours, switch to heat applications to help overstimulated tissues heal.
Another way to be proactive about lower back pain is to find ways to use hot and cold therapy throughout your daily routine. Try:
• Keeping a heat patch near your bed in case you wake up with lower back pain
• Applying a cold patch to your lower back before you go to bed if you overexerted your lower back muscles that day
• Taking a warm bath or using other forms of heat therapy before bed if you have chronic lower back pain
• Taking ice packs or adhesive heat patches with you to work and when you travel
From filling socks with ice to using heating and cooling gels, there are many ways to apply heat and cold to your lower back. Whatever method you prefer, make sure to avoid applying it directly to the skin (adhesive heat wraps are an exception). Also, limit applications to 15–20 minutes at a time, and take a break for a few hours between applications. Lastly, check with your doctor or Los Angeles spine surgeon if your lower back pain isn’t going away after a few weeks of hot and cold therapy.
People who are having prolonged or severe lower back pain should reach out to the physicians at The Spine Institute. Whether they require medication, physical therapy, or a procedure such as spinal fusion surgery, Los Angeles patients can rely on the experience and expertise of our pioneering doctors to help them find relief from their pain. Call us today at 310-828-7757 to schedule an appointment.