Is It Best To Use Ice Or Heat For Back Pain Relief?



Is It Best To Use Ice Or Heat For Back Pain Relief?


There is a lot of confusion as to whether it is best to use ice or heat for back pain. That is because they both work, but it depends on a few critical factors as to which is going to help, and if the other could actually make you worse.

It is important have some understanding as to what causes back pain, and how long it takes to get better so you know what the best course of action is to fix your back pain.


Ice and heat work in different ways to help relieve back pain, and the main factor to consider when deciding which one to use is how long have you had the injury.

Basically, for an acute injury or onset of back pain, ice is the recommended application. For longer lasting, or chronic pain, heat is often more effective. But with chronic problems you do need to be a bit more careful as there are a few exceptions which will detailed below.


A Quick Word On Inflammation.

Inflammation is recognised as a major contributor to many chronic illnesses, from arthritis to cardiovascular disease.  We encourage you to read this article on the effects of inflammation to find out what it is, and how to avoid it.


When To Use Ice On A Painful Back.

Ice, or cold therapy, is essentially used to ease inflammation. Inflammation occurs when their is injury or damage to body tissue, such as muscles or ligaments. It is how the body repairs damage and is characterised by pain swelling and redness. Using ice packs on an acute injury slows and restricts blood flow to the area, helping to reduce the inflammatory response. Ice also has an anaesthetic effect, where it can numb the area and reduce pain sensations.

Using ice therapy on back pain is most effective in the first 2-3 days after the injury, or onset of pain. It can also be used if there has been an sudden relapse of an old problem.


How to Use An Ice Pack For The Most Benefit.

Ice packs are most effective when used intermittently in short bursts. Wrap the ice pack in a cloth so as not to burn the skin, then apply directly on to the skin at the affected area.

Leave the ice pack on for 10-15 minutes at a time, BUT NO LONGER. After 15-20 minutes, an icepack will actually start to increase blood flow to the area, potentially aggravating inflammation. The exact opposite of the desired effect.

It is also better for back pain sufferers to try and walk around while the ice pack is on.



When To Use A Hot Pack On A Painful Back.

Hot packs help to increase blood flow and relax muscle spasm. If there is acute inflammation present this has the potential to make matters worse, so if you are aware of any heat, swelling or redness you are better using ice packs.

Heat packs are most effective at assisting with the recovery from a chronic back problem. This is defined as having been present for 3 months or longer, but it is widely accepted that using heat after a minimum of 6 weeks post acute injury will be helpful. Applying heat packs at any time before this can re-aggravate inflammation.

There is more information on heat pads here.



In general, if you are not sure which way to go, start using the ice/cold packs as directed above for 2 days. At least you will not be making the problem worse if there is any chance of aggravating an inflammatory response.

If the ice packs do not help, then you can try using heat packs on your painful back. If you find that the heat packs are not helping do not continue to use them, but seek a spinal health professionals opinion.



Remember that back pain is a sign that something is wrong. Your spinal health is not something to be complacent about, as it can seriously affect your whole well-being and quality of life, so be sure you are getting the care you need. Ice and heat therapy may help to relieve the symptoms of back pain, but if there is an underlying problem any form of pain relief will not actually fix it. Please get it checked out.


If you have any questions, or would like to share your own experience, please leave us a comment below.




  1. I have problems with my back at times. It’s a nightmare and very debilitating both mentally and physically. I used to work in construction and, man, it was a killer. I learned to look after my back and that has helped big time and now that I’ve quit construction – I haven’t had the problem for quite a while. That said, I know it’s always there waiting to be tweaked. It’s something to do with a trapped nerve apparently.
    When I had it, I found that a hot compress helped. It kept me sane (arguably) at least.

    Nowadays, it’s the old ankle giving me trouble. It tolerable, but a pain in the a…nkle. Cartilage growth over old football injuries rubbing against, whatever, according to the doc.
    I have anti-inflammatory tablets, but I only take them when it gets really bad. Otherwise, a bucket of hot water and some relaxation eases the pain. Luckily, it’s intermittent and can go away for weeks or even months, but it can pop back up at any time, out of the blue for no obvious reason.

    I’d love an alternative to the tablets or a longer term solution. Any tips appreciated

  2. I always wonder on when to use an ice pack and when to use a heat pack.
    You are right that both methods are useful.
    I love the feeling of ice cooling my thighs after a long run and love the feeling of heat pack on my lower back.
    Now I know when to use each one of them.

  3. Great information about back pain. It makes me understand more, of what my mother is going through when she complains about her back pain. And this information corrects an error that I had, believing that cold could be used anytime for pain relief.

    • HI Billy,

      Cold packs can still be used at any time because, unlike using heat on an inflamed injury, ice is never going to make a problem worse. Ice also has an anaesthetic effect, in that it reduces the sensation of pain. However, as stated above, it is MOST effective in the early stages after an injury.

      Have a great day!

      Dr Brad

  4. hello. great information:) my friend came yesterday from the gym and she woke up in a lot of pain. Good to know this things, helped me because i wanted to do something to make her fell better and i did not know how 🙂 . I think you will help a lot of people 🙂

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