Ice or Heat for Back Pain?

The Ultimate Guide

Tips and studies behind ice and heat therapy to assist you in choosing.


Back pain is one of the most common reasons people go to their doctor in the U.S. In fact, 25% of American’s have reported having back pain for at least a day, over the course of 3 months. Back pain can limit your physical abilities and contribute to decreased quality of life.

Back pain is caused by a variety of reasons and is considered either acute, or chronic. Acute back pain is considered when the pain only lasts approximately 4 weeks. Back pain is classified as chronic in nature when it lasts longer than 12 weeks. The most common area of back pain is in the lower back.

There are many options for treatment of back pain, and you should speak with you doctor regarding the right choice for you. Medications are not always the first line of treatment, and most people prefer getting relief at home. One treatment you can easily do at home is utilizing ice or heat for back pain. 

25% of American’s have reported having back pain for at least a day, over the course of 3 months.

Ice for Back Pain

Experts recommend using ice for back pain for the first 24-72 hours

Some doctors recommend using ice for back pain if that pain is acute in nature. Most of the time, use of ice for back pain is recommended during the first 24 to 72 hours. While ice may not improve any injuries, it can help with your discomfort.

Lowering the temperature of your back with ice can make blood vessels get smaller (constrict), limiting blood flow in the area. Reduced blood flow can decrease the amount of pain you have in your back. In addition to pain control, ice can also reduce local inflammation.

Ice should also be considered if you are very active and get sore muscles in your lower back. Immediately after strenuous exercise, application of ice can decrease inflammation, and pain that could result from overworked muscles.

Heat for Back Pain

Evidence shows using heat for the first few days decreases pain & improves movement

Evidence shows that heat for back pain during the first few days can decrease pain and improve movement. Additionally, heat application has been shown to be more effective than over-the-counter pain medications, like NSAID’s (ibuprofen, naproxen).

Heat therapy can aid in the healing of bodily tissues, like muscle, after overuse. Studies have proven heats ability to provide short-term pain relief by relaxing muscle tissue and reducing inflammation. 

Ice and Heat for Back Pain

Ice: Good for acute pain. Reduces inflammation. Minimizes pain. Heat: Good for chronic pain. Improves blood flow. Relaxes muscles.

You may be wondering, is heat or ice better for back pain? Ice is a good treatment for acute back pain, or during the first couple of days. Heat is better for more chronic back pain, or once the initial inflammation and swelling have improved. If you have acute back pain, it is recommended you use ice first then heat to manage your discomfort.

Some studies have shown that ice and heat have nearly the same analgesic effects. Having similar effects on pain means ice or heat for lower back pain could be equally as effective. While ice is recommended before heat for an acute injury, heat can help if you have a strained muscle from physical activity. 

How to Use Hot or Cold for Back Pain

You can purchase a heating pad to use for your back pain. Heating pads help with back pain, especially when it is chronic in nature. You can use low-level heat for several hours safely. While heating pads can offer a lot of relief, setting them on high, or falling asleep on one could result in serious burns. If you are unable to get a heating pad, you can also take a hot shower, or soak in a hot bath.

An option for cold application is a gel pack for back pain. Gel packs may be easier to use and offer more flexibility than an ice pack. Application of ice for back pain is typically recommended for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. You can use ice for low back pain multiple times a day, with breaks in between to keep your skin healthy. It is important to wrap whatever cold application you are using in a towel to protect your skin. 

Safety of Ice or Heat for Back Pain

Using hot or cold for back pain is generally recognized as safe if you protect your skin. As mentioned above, cold should only be used for 10 to 20 minutes at a time but can be applied multiple times a day. Any cold applications should be wrapped in clothing or a towel for skin protection.

Heat application is also safe, provided the skin is protected, and the heat is on low. Pregnant women can safely use low-level heat to relieve back pain. While heating pads can be safe for pregnant women, hot showers may also an option to provide relief. It is important to discuss any treatments or concerns with your doctor.

The use of heat or cold for back pain comes with very low risk. There are no serious side effects from using heat or cold therapy for your back pain. Just remember when using a heating pad or ice pack for back pain, that your skin needs to protected. If you are concerned about other medical interventions, like medications, starting with hot and cold for back pain may be right for you. 

Should I Use Heat or Ice for Back Pain?

So, do you use heat or ice for lower back pain? You may be wondering what is right for you regarding management of your back pain. There is no clear answer to whether heat or ice for back pain is better. Most recommendations support ice then heat for back pain.

Both ice and heat work well, but the best choice depends on your individual symptoms. How long have you had pain, and do you know why? Basing your management on how many days your pain has been present is a great way to determine which treatment is right for you. If you are having a hard time deciding, you can try heat or cold for lower back pain, to determine which is better for you. 

About the Author

Brandon Landgraf is the Digital Marketing Manager for Carex Health Brands. He finds passion and fulfillment in creating content that enhances, improves, and enlivens others' quality of life. All of his written work is formulated to not only offer essential advice and tips but back it with proven studies and experts. His mission is to connect with readers and provide steps to make their lives better.

You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.

About Carex Health Brands

Carex is your one-stop shop for home medical equipment and for products that assist caregivers with providing the best possible support and care for their loved ones. Carex Health Brands has been the branded leader in in-home, self-care medical products for over 35 years. Our goal is to improve the lives of our customers by bring them quality products that bring dignity back to their lives. With our three nationally distributed brands, Carex Health Brands serves national, regional and independent food, drug and mass retailers along with wholesalers, distributors and medical dealers.

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