I can save you the time and hassle of reading this article for your answer by telling you right now. ICE. No longer than 20 minutes at a time, and repeat as often as every hour.
Okay, since that is out of the way now we can discuss a little more why. Most likely if you are reading this looking for relief, you are in pain significant enough to cause you to read it. This means there is likely a reasonable amount of inflammation occurring within your body. The inflammation occurring is the key. Ice is great for slowing down the progression of inflammation. Heat is great for increasing circulation, but in turn will increase any inflammation present. This means more pain after you take the heat off.
When I set out to right this article it was in response to the question I am always asked, “Should I use ice or heat?” About 95% of my patients state on their initial visit that they have utilized heat to try and find relief. When asked if the heat has helped they almost always reply with, “It feels great while it is on, but overall is hasn’t helped much”. And that is correct. Ice and heat are both analgesics, meaning they help reduce pain. Heat helps reduce the feeling of pain while the heat is applied. Ice in turn numbs the area by slowing the transmission of pain through your nerves. So, they both reduce pain while applied, but the numbness created by the ice will last for several minutes after the ice is removed, continuing its effectiveness.
In addition to the analgesic effect, ice will slow circulation which will slow the progression of inflammation. What do you do if you injure your ankle? Everyone will answer, “ice”. Many will quote the classic RICE acronym for injuries. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Why do you use ice? To slow the swelling/inflammation, because the swelling is a significant factor in producing pain and limiting range of motion. Everyone knows to put ice on their ankle when it is injured, so why doesn’t everyone do the same for their back or neck? My only explanation is the multitude of commercials on TV that advertise heat patches for back pain. Heat can be beneficial for chronic arthritic pain, but definitely not acute pain.
When I did a search on this topic before writing about it I expected to find many articles telling you to use heat for back pain since that is what most people use. However, I found the opposite. Nearly all the articles on the internet stated the same thing as me, use ice for back pain.
Now you know. Use ice. No longer than 20 minutes at a time. After 20 minutes of ice you begin to get adverse effects you don’t want. You can then repeat the application as often as every hour. So 20 minutes on, 40 minutes off. You can buy gel ice packs that work well because they mold well to the surface of your body for good contact. You can also make a good homemade ice pack with a plastic freezer bag filled with ice and a little water. Put a thin cloth like a pillow case or t-shirt between your skin and the ice pack for comfort. If you are in severe pain you want to ease the ice pack onto the painful area. If you throw it on too quickly the shock of the cold along with the pain could send your muscles into further spasm.
Now, ice certainly won’t solve all back pain. If your pain continues please see a doctor. We would be happy to help you at Frostwood Chiropractic at either of our locations in Katy or Memorial. But now when we ask you what you have done to try to reduce the pain for yourself you should say “ICE”.
June 25th, 2012 by Christopher Freytag, D.C.